War of the Worlds (2005)
It’s easy to dislike Skyline upon watching the first twenty minutes of it. The fast-forward opening sequence feels like a TV spot, every male character seems to think he’s a hip-hop star, and the “aliens launch an attack on Earth with no warning” premise is anything but original. However, once you get past the uphill opening, the film reveals itself to be willing to do whatever it takes to raise the stakes of the plot. Skyline is never able to shed all of its problems and actually picks up a few along the way, but it is overall a suspenseful sci-fi thriller that never lets up despite consistently bumpy writing.
You know the drill. People wake up, and suddenly the Earth is under attack by extraterrestrials. Well, L.A. is at least. We never learn about the rest of the globe, but there are hints that the event may be, to some extent, isolated. We follow a guy, Jarrod, and his girlfriend, Elaine, who happen to be visiting Jarrod’s friend Terry at the latter’s penthouse when it happens. Dozens of giant, luminescent objects land around the city, and anyone who looks at them gets hypnotized and sucked up into alien ships hovering near the lights. This happens to a guy at Terry’s place. It almost happens to Jarrod. When they look out the window, they see that it is happening to hundreds of others as well. From here, these characters and a few others find themselves running around in and out of the apartment building trying alternately to hide and escape from the invading aliens, which have launched a massive hunt for any survivors of the hypnotizing lights. Why are they doing this? It looks like they feed off of brains. But who knows?
There are two main problems with Skyline, and though they aren’t detrimental, they are so prevalent as to constantly detract from the enjoyable aspects of the movie. One of these issues is the film’s tendency to present shots or dialogue that seem like they only exist to be used as promotional material. Several brief moments during the initial attack are filmed low and slowly from behind the characters with the aliens’ lights shining directly at the camera, adding what is meant to be some sort of epic or resonant feel to the events. For this part of the story, though, the feeling in focus should be that of fear, so the shots come across as awkward and specifically made for posters. At one point when Jarrod discovers that an apparent Earth victory is anything but, he delivers this made-for-trailer line: “They’re not dead. They’re just really, really pissed off.” The worst offender in this regard is a scene near the movie’s end. It would spoil the ending if I provided details, but the scene involves two characters kissing under the most ludicrous circumstances possible. Sure enough, after watching a few trailers and commercials for the film afterward, I found that they do contain these moments I've mentioned, except for the “pissed off” line.
The second problem is that in the writers' attempt to build tension, they occasionally force their characters to do and say things that don’t make sense. The characters rival horror cliché stupidity in their constant need to go outside to check things out or try to run away instead of waiting even a day in hopes that the invaders will move on. At one point, to add to the chaos, the characters come to fisticuffs when arguing over their next course of action. This conflict is clearly contrived, though, because nothing’s keeping each individual from doing what he/she wants. The individuals arguing in this scene aren’t even friends; there’s nothing keeping them together. The most nonsensical twist occurs shortly after the first round of abductions, when one character tries finding news about the invasion on her Blackberry. She finds nothing at all. The idea is that everyone, even news teams, are either captured by the aliens or hiding from them, but that’s absurd, obviously. We are meant to believe that no one in the world has posted anything about this online? Maybe Twitter blew up and took the rest of the internet with it.
So, the movie has no shortage of flaws. However, its merits are so surprisingly strong that they actually balance it into an overall enjoyable experience. Ironically, these merits come from the very source of the film’s problems: its constant attempt to build tension. Skyline retains an admirable devotion to depicting bleak imagery whenever possible. Its most dismaying images are those of the alien ships hovering over the city and sucking up hundreds of bodies. Smartly, these scenes are shown only from afar. Because of this, we are forced to endure the fear of such a sight ourselves as opposed to zooming in and watching the horror as it is experienced more personally by individual victims. The emotionless efficiency with which the smaller, land-walking aliens suck up their victims evokes a similar horror. The aliens kill so quickly that they hardly seem to enjoy it. They’re just indifferent. The only thing worse than encountering unprecedented terror is knowing that the perpetrators of that terror have such little regard for their victims that they hardly seem satisfied even to kill them.
Skyline also succeeds in forcing us to believe that any character can die at any time, which therefore heightens its suspense. It does this in the best way possible: by killing main characters throughout the plot and by dashing our hopes whenever we catch a hair of optimism. No character of any importance is safe, and whenever we think the humans have gained the upper hand against the aliens, something happens to prove otherwise (although, if you’re familiar with other films in the genre, you’ll likely know that when it seems like a happy ending has been reached with thirty minutes or more left to go, something else is probably in store). In the film’s final sequence, it takes a turn into a level of austerity that few big-budget films would be willing to approach. Granted, this ending is mangled by an apparent confusion as to what should come next (the answer: vastly premature credits!), but it deserves respect for getting there in the first place. The movie constantly reinforces the notion that we cannot feel safe. It is this, more than anything else, that keeps us involved.
There are hundreds of movies I would recommend checking out, sci-fi or otherwise, before you make the decision to watch Skyline, but if you do choose to spend the time and money to watch this film, it will not have been wasted. It has more than its share of flaws, but they are largely redeemed by the fact that the film is far more willing to take risks than most other films of any genre. You’ll frequently be distracted by shortcomings, but you’ll also be on edge for most of the movie’s ninety minutes. Not bad for another alien invasion flick. ... Not great, either, but not bad.