The phrase “TV actor” was once the worst insult anyone could bestow upon a performer. No self-respecting film star would ever consider taking a long term role on a series in fear it might harm their chances of a true career in movies, while the very idea of a soap star headlining a summer blockbuster was a disaster waiting to happen. As inexplicable as the perception was, it was a barrier that took years to overcome. George Clooney was one of the first to make the break, brushing off a few notable missteps before gradually making his claim as the biggest film star in the world, while the first offering in the Scream franchise was as much of a breakthrough for TV actors as it was for the horror genre itself. One by one the shining lights of the small screen began finding success in major motion pictures, their faces appearing suddenly like surprised meerkats in a wildlife documentary. A sighting here, a sighting there, until eventually the separation stopped existing altogether.
As more and more made the transition though, there was one name that somehow appeared to miss the crossover. As a TV actor Keri Russell has been a standout since her days as the angst ridden title character in the J.J. Abrams series Felicity. While the show was occasionally lost amongst the swarm of teen dramas dominating TV at the time, her performance has always stood out as an underrated combination of girl next door charm and doubt riddled insecurity. Her frizzy hair made her a celebrity, but it was her overwhelming sincerity and anguish that made her a fan favourite and an eventual precursor to the Kristen Stewarts and Shailene Woodleys of the world. She has quietly become the prototype for a generation of teen actresses drawn to the stuttering, sighing despair she brought to the character. A second career defining role on FX’s brilliant espionage series The Americans has proved even more fruitful, providing a platform for her to show off an incredible range only hinted at previously.
The big screen has been a different story for her though. After strong showings over the years playing various supporting characters amid the occasional lead role, her movie career has never quite taken off the way fans may have hoped. Her heartwarming turn in the unobtrusively enjoyable Waitress aside, it’s mindboggling that her only notable film roles to date have been as the aspiring ballet dancer daughter of Joan Allen’s hilariously hostile drunk in The Upside Of Anger and her small but typecast destroying action turn in Mission: Impossible III. Her performance in Dark Skies won’t bump either of those down the list, but it at least gives her more screen time to put that straining desperation to centre stage in a thriller desperately trying to offer a twist on the standard haunted house premise.
Playing Lacy Barrett, mother to the creepy Sam and his protective but misled older brother Jesse, Russell puts her trademark vulnerability to perfect use again. As far as strange occurrences go, a messy kitchen, tampered with photos and an unreliable alarm system don’t necessarily scream an invasion by otherworldly forces, but all were handled with an appropriate level of suspense by director Scott Stewart. Having been at the helm of one of the better guilty pleasures of the last few years – the siege movie disguised as a biblical apocalypse Legion – Stewart deserved an open mind for his latest film, or at the very least a willingness to block out any nagging scepticism brought about by the film’s uninspiring outline.
The visuals are definitely in keeping with his previous work. Stewart has kept consistently trashy form over the course of his directing career so far, gradually developing a gloomy B-grade resume that is as entertaining as it is forgettable. Treating his own brand of schlock with the earnestness of any Paul Thomas Anderson award winner, Stewart takes it a step further this time round, toning down the ridiculousness at the expense of any of the unintentional fun of his other directorial outings. And for the most part it fits. His permanently shadowy visuals add a nicely gothic touch to the suburban setting, giving even the sunlit scenes an unsettling feel.
Unfortunately drowning the film in darkness can’t hide the fact that this clearly isn’t The Shining. The inability to make out exactly what is happening at any given moment works in the movie’s favour in some scenes, but makes for dull viewing in others. The characters do little but follow the template – Lacy continually tries to make sense of proceedings while her other half remains sceptical until the very last act. J.K. Simmons appears, looking slightly unsure why he’s in the movie in the first place, and Josh Hamilton struggles through a series of bewildered facial expressions as husband Daniel. The ending is interesting enough, but stays somehow unoriginal even while valiantly trying to veer the story away from the traditional third act of any supernatural horror classic.
Amongst it all is Keri Russell – again creating a resume worthy performance in an unworthy film. An incredible actress who elevates anything she’s in, she does what she can here but as with most of her other movie roles, you’re left wishing someone would finally cast her in something great. Even in a role as limited as this her ability to convey emotion with the slightest look makes the situation that much more believable. Her heartache and fear bounce off the screen. The Americans has thankfully helped her avoid the kind of career path Mischa Barton deservedly ended up with, but here she’s a shining light in an otherwise ordinary offering.
And that’s the overriding message in the end. This is decent enough and an excusable way to pass the time, but unlikely to remain with anyone afterwards. It draws the viewer in for its duration, happily ensconced in its familiar set-ups and scares, all the while knowing it’ll slip from the memory immediately afterwards. Dark Skies isn’t the mindless escapism it could have been, and definitely not the star making vehicle Russell so desperately deserves.