Rating: ★½☆☆☆

Felicity star Keri Russell continues to prove why she’s such an appealing lead actress, though her performance is completely wasted in this turgid sci-fi guff, wearing its meagre budget on its sleeve alongside every imaginable genre cliche.

Things get weird pretty quickly in Dark Skies for Daniel (Josh Hamilton), Lacy (Russell) and their children, Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and Sammy (Kadan Rockett). Their home gets ransacked, the security system is tripped on its own, and it becomes increasingly clear that a malevolent extra-terrestrial entity wants something with the family. If they are to survive the ordeal as a unit, they will have to demonstrate the strength of their familial bond.

Viewers will be excused for having low expectations given writer-director Scott Stewart’s two “major” features to date, Legion and Priest. Needless to say, he has no qualms living down to forecasts right out of the gate, with risible dialogue (“That’s what save buttons are for, pal”) and scant logic – their fridge is ransacked and they believe it’s the work of an animal – taking precedent.

Plenty of inane films at least manage to generate some atmosphere, but Dark Skies can’t even accomplish that. The gags aren’t in the least bit creepy, and at least three are stolen from the Paranormal Activity series – the ransacked kitchen, some paranormal furniture re-arrangement, and a convoluted camera monitoring system – while the jump scares, powered by seemingly increasingly loud tension chords, prove totally ineffective.

Piled onto this are some throwaway references to various sci-fi and suspense classics, namely Spielberg’s E.T. and Hitchcock’s The Birds, though the response from most viewers will likely be perverse amusement. Accepting the feeling of terror that this film is trying to create – usually by way of characters banging their heads against glass or staring agape into the camera – will likely only be an option for young children for who this is their first foray into horror.

The filler used to pad out the thin story leaves no dead horse unflogged, jumping off to explore the personal woes of the family by way of the youngest son catatonically urinating himself, while the older one turns to drugs and the allure of young girls. If they weren’t soporific enough diversions, the husband can’t get a job, they’re about to default on their mortgage, and the marriage suffers as a result. Despite all these scenes inviting us to care, the polarising result is that viewers will instead be cheering the largely unseen “greys” on.

Likely a cause of the shoestring budget, the film is nothing but build-up – not to be mistaken for suspense, mind. The police think the domestic commotion is being caused by the kids and local families begin to think that the parents are abusing the children after some marks appear on their bodies, yet given that we as viewers clearly know this isn’t true, there’s no tension in the scenario; it’s just painfully boring and utterly needless.

J.K. Simmons’ second-half appearance as a paranormal expert briefly perks things up, delivering more gravitas in his several mouthfuls of exposition than anybody else in the entire film. It’s not for lack of trying, though; Keri Russell, a talented actress, throws herself into the role of beleaguered wife and mother, even if her efforts are ultimately lost on dreck like this.

While parallelling the family unit’s disintegration with the alien invasion is far from a terrible idea, the meek approach leads to an accidentally hilarious finale that completely undermines the faintest morsel of potential. All we’re left thinking is how cheap and (more importantly) charmless the project is; for a film directed by a visual effects developer, the very brief glimpses of the aliens couldn’t possibly be more rote and unimaginative.

By parading out every tired trope from the sci-fi and horror genres, Dark Skies is unintentional self-parody, and quite dreadful indeed.

Dark Skies is in cinemas today.

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This article was first posted on April 3, 2013