Aliens. A classic genre spanning… well, actually not much. You usually get horror or sci-fi. Maybe some thriller tucked away among the ranks. And if the genre of ‘masterpiece’ exists, Cocoon sits right there. I just love Wilford Brimley and his immortal moustache. As much as I cannot get enough alien sci-fi, I have an unhealthy obsession with alien horror.
But when it comes to alien horror, what’s the best? Which movie wears the crown?
Let’s go back in time to the dreary epoch of 1982. But wait, I wasn’t born then. So fast forward to about 1995 or so when I saw E.T. for the first time. I was a wee lad. I snuck into the basement and—mostly from between my terrified fingers—watched the best Drew Barrymore film ever made. And it scared me senseless. In all honesty, it probably planted the seed for my love of horror and obsession with aliens. But is it the best alien horror? Of course not. It isn’t a horror movie no matter how damaged my psyche was for years to come. However, what it is is an excellent template for what makes alien horror work.
Defining Alien Horror: What We Can Learn from E.T.
What makes the best alien horror? It’s simple: take the elements of E.T. and put them into a horror film. That’s how you get 2013’s Dark Skies. And yes, I know the movie has a lot of detractors. That’s fine. Everyone’s opinion is valid, and I’m only here to espouse mine.
We’ll start with some of the mainstay elements of the genre, lifted from E.T. in such a wonderfully horrific manner:
- The ‘first contact’ trope: instead of a cute, friendly alien, we get nightmare fuel.
- The ‘no one will believe us’ trope: instead of hiding your best friend, you have to convince the police and everyone else you aren’t patently insane.
- The ‘empathic connection’ trope: instead of feeling the alien’s emotion, we’re now marked for death and branded with cryptic runes while we sleep, essentially binding us to the aliens.
- The ‘mad dash ending’ trope: instead of fleeing the government and rushing to save the life of an alien, we are abandoned by the government and rushing to save our own life from the aliens.
Essentially, Dark Skies gives us all the good elements of a standard alien sci-fi twisted until it fits the shape of horror.
Is that enough to make the movie so great? No, but the movie still holds up phenomenally well. Why? Because everything about it is realistic. Good horror grounds itself in realities the audience recognizes. While the entire plot of E.T. is pretty easy to dismiss as fantasy, Dark Skies is not.
Alien Horror: Are we Alone in the Universe?
The answer for why a more realistic approach works lies in psychology. I taught the subject at both the high school and college levels until very recently, so I feel like I have a bit of a grasp on the scientific angles at play.
Dark Skies primes us from the very beginning with a quote from Arthur C. Clark:
“Two possibilities exist… Either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”
That quote alone is beyond unsettling. Think about it. Either Earth houses the only life in the universe, or it does not. No third possibility exists. It is hard to fathom being truly alone. Imagine exploring dead planetary system after dead planetary system for millions of years. The humans of the future would go insane with isolation. Imagine we are not alone. It could mean eradication in the blink of an eye when we’re finally discovered, through war or disease. Or it could mean centuries of unending wars with alien civilizations. No one knows, and the unknown is just as terrifying as being alone.
Starting with the quote sets the entire tone for the movie, and that tone is realism. The viewer is drawn in and forced to consider the movie’s plot as though it was happening to us. After all, the possibility is whether we are alone, not they. One of the brilliant things done by Dark Skies is getting the viewer to really consider the possibilities.
Everything that happens in Dark Skies is rooted in reality, not sci-fi, which preys on our minds in a very real and psychological way. For instance: think of the various goings on with the family’s kitchen. Did they leave the door open? A home invasion? An animal? Sleep walking? All are real possibilities. Aliens? Also a real possibility. By framing all the strange occurrences as plausible and not immediately supernatural, the movie continues to prey on our fears. It makes the supernatural natural.
The event (trying not to give too much away if you haven’t seen it) with the photographs? More realism. Unruly kids offer a completely believable explanation. The birds? Again, could be entirely the result of biology.
When the movie really ramps up the scare factor is when the shadows start to appear. I have the sneaking suspicion that they’re based on the very real phenomenon of sleep paralysis, another thing that can wreak havoc with viewers. Sleep paralysis can cause sufferers to see shadow-like humanoid hallucinations right at the edges of their sleep. Anyone familiar with the diagnosis will immediately feel the terror in a very visceral way as they watch.
And the realism doesn’t stop there! Even when the more ridiculous things start to happen like one of the children showing massive bruising and the family finding cuts behind their ears. Again, there are rational explanations rooted in known science for both of those phenomena. But imagine the terror as a parent trying to explain to a doctor why your son has mysterious bruises all over his chest. That’s brutal.
The icing on the cake for Dark Skies is its inevitability. The parents find an expert and get his advice, but all he can say is that they’re screwed. I’m a firm believer that horror movies with happy endings are pretty lame, and Dark Skies delivers the tragic ending in beautiful fashion. The characters know what will happen. And they know they are powerless to stop it. Think of it: you know the enemy is coming, you know the consequences will be dire, and you know there’s absolutely no hope whatsoever. The end. Roll credits.
Through and through, Dark Skies is a brilliant movie. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times, and every single scene still gives me goosebumps. When you consider the very real possibility that we are not alone in the universe, it isn’t too hard to imagine that first contact will happen just as the movie portrays it. Or… that it has already happened. That it is happening right now all over the world.
And that it could happen to us.