Skyline review

18 December 2017

Genre:SciFi, Horror
Runtime:97 min

Warning: This review may contain spoilers.

Skyline is a 2010 film that deals with an alien invasion, and a handful of people trying to escape the apartment building in which they live before the aliens get them.

It was universally panned by both critics and average-Joe reviewers, and yet made substantial amounts of money (especially considering its original shoe-string budget), and I, personally, liked it on certain levels that may or may not have been intended by the film-makers.

This week marks the (limited) release of its follow-up, a full seven years after the original. The fact that a sequel even exists is a sign that the film was not quite as badly received as the raw numbers it is getting on sites such as IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes would lead you to believe.

To me, my liking of Skyline is precisely why I call myself a junk connoisseur. It is not a film that is easy to like, as to all appearances it is a B movie, and not a very good one. However, I see this as a ruse, much as was the case with Mars Attacks!. Unfortunately, the history of cinema is filled with examples of purposefully-bad movies where the audience just didn't get the joke and therefore did not enjoy the finished product. Mars Attacks!, Planet Terror and Ishtar are examples of this, and I claim that Skyline belongs to the same ill-fated genre.

It is even more difficult to get the joke in Skyline than in the other examples noted here, as the others are examples where A-list writers, actors and directors have been gathered together to create something deliberately awful, and the audience is supposed to remember that these can all do much, much better. In the case of Skyline, the fact that it was made by amateurs on a shoestring budget does not help clue one in to the fact that it is really, knowingly or not, a farce, lampooning well-worn Hollywood cliches, while at the same time also being a movie with interesting and highly original aspects.

Recently, perhaps timed with the release of its sequel, I saw Skyline mentioned in someone's list of "awesome movies that the critics got completely wrong". I'm not sure it is an awesome movie. I think it's a passable, mediocre movie, when taken at face value, but I don't take it at face value at all, and I think anyone who does misses some clever film-making, that is hiding under the surface of this OK film.

To celebrate the release of Skyline's sequel, here is my original review of the 2010 film, precisely as it appeared on IMDb at the time of the original release.

I gave this film a 7 because at face value that's what it deserves. However, anyone who takes it at face value is missing the best parts:

  1. First off, it isn't an action/adventure. Maybe those who gave it a 1 expected that. It's SciFi/Horror. A group of protagonists are trapped inside a building and are, in turn, devoured by alien monsters. Alien is its closest kin, what Ridley Scott once termed "a haunted house in space". Here, the haunted house is a thirty story building, and, like it or not, that is innovative. This is like Die Hard where the terrorists are aliens and Bruce Willis loses. If you think this is formulaic, go see Battle LA. You deserve it. Another major innovation is that this is a horror movie with no foreshadowing music, with no darkness, without extreme close-up over-the-shoulder shots (and, bless heavens, absolutely no shaky-cam.) It's a horror movie about agoraphobia, not formulaic claustrophobia. You don't see many of those.
  2. On another level, consider the plot. People complained there isn't any, but that's not true. It just isn't of the simple, linear, shoot-em-up variety that people who liked the trailer may be expecting. The movie is about a group of people who repeatedly concoct plans of what to do in the face of a force majeure unlike any other, only to have those plans crushed (to the sound of a wet splat!) before they can even make the first move. The plot progresses in that their plans increasingly try to achieve less and less. From a major victory they move to a minor win, to a symbolic win, to just having the opportunity to make a stand: a study of human desperation. The directors did well in choosing real-life-like people as protagonists: petty, unwilling to accept the reality of what is going on, non-heroic. Not a single Bruce Willis among them, and that's what makes the movie so worth watching and grounds it in reality.
  3. On yet another level, this movie is self-aware cinema which I quite often found out-loud funny. Here are some examples of what I mean: (a) Director credit "The Strause Brothers" is a clear reference to "The Wachowski Brothers", directors of The Matrix. Some of the flying aliens in Skyline are also, I think, inspired by The Matrix's squids. (b) Not only SciFi, Horror and Haunted House themes are featured. There is also a strong sense of a zombie movie. The aliens are shot, blown up, mauled, beaten up and even axed to death, only to reassert themselves seconds later. This theme is brought to a climax in the film's ending. (Let me just say this: "Brrrains! Fresh Brrrains!") (c) The ridiculously straight-face in which the protagonists grasp at each false hope anew, playing directly on the Hollywood formula. Nowhere is this more prominent as in the brilliant deliberately-bad music by Matthew Margeson (whose line of credits shows he can do a lot better, thank you). The music repeats one theme in all climatic scenes, to the point that the audience can hum it with the soundtrack. It's a piece singing of hope, a heightened spirit, rescue and splat! (which is the part where the monsters chew the plan to bits and spit out the pieces). Margeson, you're my hero! ... and there are a lot more examples where that came from. The lighter scene alone is worth the price of admission to me. "Yippee-ki-yay!", only in Spanish.
  4. Lastly, and perhaps most in tune with the director's original intentions, this movie is at the forefront of a revolution. This revolution started when CGI replaced incredibly-costly model-building and puppeteering special effects, continued when Weta workshop and its kin replaced incredibly-costly ILM effects, and has been pushed further with upcoming Project London and its likes. CGI VFX is now a commodity. Colin and Greg Strause have shown that two people, working in garage conditions, shooting in their own homes, working with whatever actors they can get, can make a movie indistinguishable from those playing in the big league. Yes, the non-appearance of Bruce Willis is quite noticeable here, too. If you want Bruce Willis, go see The Fifth Element. If you want Matt Damon, go see The Adjustment Bureau. In both cases, you will see big-money actors wasted on a poor script propped by unconvincing VFX. This is not to say that either of those movies is a waste of your money. I just think this one, on the same scale, is better. To man the role of "the guy with the plan" Colin and Greg Strause cast both Donald Faison ("Turk" from Scrubs) and David Zayas ("Angel" from Dexter) (another self-aware stroke of genius: the two appear in practically every scene without having a single common scene. For all intents and purposes, they're just playing one person.) These two TV actors were cast specifically to recap their TV characters: well-meaning, pretty cool, apparently dependable, but ultimately clueless. (My only real qualm with this movie is that Faison and Zayas didn't bite the hands that feed them, and, contrary to directorial directions, decided to show that they do have more range than that.) So, basically, the gauntlet has been thrown: Hollywood, what are you wasting all your big bucks on? Why can't you do any better than what these guys did using a fraction of what you're spending? So, I'm well aware that this movie isn't everyone's cup of tea, but to those who can (and are willing to) appreciate what was done here, I think it's really worthwhile. I sincerely hope that Colin and Greg Strause make a lot of money off of this flick, because I want to see what they come up with next. People have complained about the originality of this film. I think it's as avant garde as any Tarrantino.