You no longer need a screenplay to make an alien invasion movie. All you need is a special effects studio, a lot of computers, and creature designers that go for all the reliable hallmarks, like flailing tentacles. You also need plenty of death and destruction, and it must all be contained within the borders of a major city – say Los Angeles or New York, because God knows an alien species prefers them to cities like Pittsburg or Chicago or Seattle or Cleveland. Scenes like that serve as a nice counterpoint to hilariously unconvincing lines like, “Everything’s under control!” Convention dictates that whoever says something like this is acting out of desperation, not determination, and this is why we already know that the character will bite it within the next ten to twenty minutes, if not sooner.
There was a time when we could rely on an alien invasion movie to tell us a story, no matter how shoddy the special effects, no matter how embarrassing the performances, no matter how weak the premise. Even the lowliest B-movies of the 1950s had actual writers attached to them. They depended on science fiction to send allegorical messages about social issues, nuclear war, the horrors of technology, or political corruption. Skyline takes the exact opposite approach; it’s a technical achievement trapped in a narrative so incompetent, it doesn’t even earn the distinction of a B-movie. There is no story. There is no theme. It makes not the slightest effort to be consistent, plausible, or understandable. It provides us with no resolution, apart from the possibility of a sequel. Not bloody likely, if I may quote George Bernard Shaw.
It’s sad to think of all the talent that went into the special effects, knowing their efforts were wasted on a film undeserving of them. We are provided with a few genuinely good looking shots; one of my favorites was of the aliens sucking hundreds of people up into their mother ship like bugs in a vacuum cleaner. I also liked the aliens themselves, even if tentacles stopped being original long before the release of Independence Day. They were designed by Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr., best known for their contributions to the Alien franchise. I’ve watched interviews with them. They seem like nice guys. Sometimes, though, I wonder if they go into a film project without really knowing what the director has in mind. Did they realize that their designs would be featured in a film that makes no attempt to explain them?
For a movie with no plot, there is an awful lot of setup. It begins with couple Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and Elaine (Scottie Thompson) flying into Los Angeles from Brooklyn to visit their old friend, Terry (Donald Faison), who struck it big as a Hollywood special effects producer. Their inconsequential human drama is rudely interrupted when, at 4:30 the following morning, the city is attacked by extraterrestrial forces. Their weapon of choice isn’t a laser beam or a death ray, but a brilliant blue light; once you look into it, you’re hopelessly drawn in, like a moth is drawn to a flame. Your eyes cloud over. Dark tendrils spread across your skin like bruises. What they want with us is left hopelessly obscure, although we are treated to a number of shots of glowing blue brains being sucked out of people’s heads – with the spinal cords still attached, no less.
Every movie like this deserves at least one glaring technicality. Skyline provides us with several. Immediately after everyone wakes up at 4:30, for example, both Jarrod and Terry head to the roof of the apartment complex to get a better view; they emerge in full sunlight, which must mean that it took them at least three hours to climb a few flights of stairs. Later on, when the television is turned on, it’s discovered that every local news broadcast is missing their anchors. This begs two questions: (1) Why are the cameras still on, pointed at empty desks, and (2) if no one is there to operate the cameras, then who’s capturing live footage of the military as they attack the alien ship? It can’t just be some yahoo with a camcorder. How would this person know how to patch into the local satellite feed?
There are many instances of little alien scout ships and even the aliens themselves getting blown to bits in an explosion, only for them to repair themselves, get back up, and continue attacking. At what point should it become clear that fireballs and missiles have absolutely no effect? After the third attempt? The fourth? Perhaps the characters in this film are firm believers that if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
At a certain point, perhaps because I was desperate to find some angle of approach, I thought of all the ways that Skyline was a veiled commentary about the dangers of Los Angeles celebrity culture. It seemed to work: It takes place in the apartment complex of a special effects producer, who surrounds himself with high tech gadgets and young, gorgeous women; when the aliens appear, they use a beautiful light to suck people in and eat their brains, just as the promise of fame and fortune can lure you in and turn you into a drone. Scottie Thompson is even supplied the line, “I hate L.A.” Alas, shots near the end of the film made it clear that no message was being sent, that the film’s only aim was to be a shiftless CGI extravaganza. I had, in short, wasted nearly 100 minutes trying to apply reason to an unreasonable film. Don’t make the same mistake I made.