Saturday, August 3, 2013

Abduction, Isolation

0. The Allure of the Impossible

When I wrote about Chariots of the Gods I briefly mentioned that despite my resolute skepticism, I've maintained a fascination with the supernatural. I've often wished for an event that would put the whole thing to rest once and for all though - an undeniably lucid encounter with something otherworldly. You know, a ghost walking through a wall to talk to me, a UFO landing in my backyard, having the opportunity to take a fully focused photo of some cryptozoological entity at medium range. As long as I'm dictating how this is going to occur, let's say it's daylight, I'm fully rested, free of anything even remotely mind-altering, and also in the company of another rationally-minded friend who meets all of the above criteria.

The problem is that these circumstances aren't likely to occur. So left without direct experience, I'm forced to live vicariously through others. Still, no matter how many stories of supernatural experiences I've heard from people I trust, I can't assign them the same weight that I would to something seen with my own eyes. In high school, one of my best friends and his sibling both swore they'd seen a ball of glowing ectoplasm float across their staircase. A significant fraction of my extended family witnessed a dozen or so lights in the sky which moved in trajectories impossible for anything aeronautical or meteorological in origin. Some slightly more extended family had friends who lived in a full-on haunted house that exhibited every single symptom of the Amityville variety: unusually cold rooms that the dog wouldn't enter, inexplicably persistent illnesses, objects flying around rooms, a strange reluctance to move away, and even one incident in which the house appeared to be on fire from the outside. The neighbors called the fire department, but when they arrived there was no damage.

None of it convinces me. I can't trust other people's memories, however much I trust the people they belong to. This is why I think alien abduction stories are so interesting to me, because they induce the same sort of doubt and uncertainty in the person who's experienced them directly. Other supernatural events don't affect those witnessing them as profoundly as abductions do. Nothing else seems to leave as indelible an impression on the victim while simultaneously inducing paralyzing self-doubt and confusion.

That an experience so powerful and life-altering would leave you with only a handful of puzzle pieces from which to reconstruct the whole picture is fascinating. It's almost as if the victims are left with the same amount of information as those removed from the event. Memories are faulty, and physical evidence is often intangible or easily refuted. Conviction alone can't prove the existence of anything. The central question behind all alien abduction narratives seems to be: how do you extract meaning from trauma that's as inexplicable as it is devastating?

1. How Not to Do It

Dark Skies (2013)
Director: Scott Stewart
Rating: 4.5 / 10
Seen via: Raleigh, NC Dollar Theater

I realized I'd been watching and rewatching a lot of alien abduction movies lately, maybe because I was so unsatisfied with one of the recent entries in the genre. Dark Skies more than likely flew beneath your radar a few months ago, and not undeservedly so. Going in, I didn't know much more than the premise. I was just excited to have an alien abduction movie hit the cheap theater. When the opening credits rolled over 5 minutes of picket-fenced suburban houses with American flags draped seemingly everywhere, the sheer flag density made me wonder what the film was setting me up for. But once the story begins, it's made very clear that the Fourth of July is coming up soon. Sure.

Spoilers after the screaming parents.

The story here will be familiar to anyone who's seen either Insidious or Sinister. Dark Skies also comes from Blumhouse Productions, who is currently busy tweaking and capitalizing off the formula that led the previous two films to relatively successful runs. Essentially, kid-snatching boogeymen terrorize a middle-class couple with a series of increasingly threatening incidents. We get creepy sequences with sleepwalking kids, kids suffering mysterious bruises that suggest physical abuse, kids drawing strange pictures, and teenage sons who suddenly rebel and start hanging out with a bad crowd. They're all pretty typical suburban horror scares, some of which are effective despite their embarrassing lack of originality. The weird events also stress out the currently unemployed Dad, causing him to botch his job interview. (Tip for the future: shaving helps make a good impression.) The kids are misbehaving, the economy is crashing, and aliens are invading. What's a family to do?

The film's solution: isolationism. After concluding that law enforcement is helpless against the invaders, the family buys a gun, gets an attack dog, boards their house up, and calls an emergency family dinner. They watch the Fourth of July fireworks on TV and reminisce about how things used to be better. As the TV shows the Statue of Liberty and the national anthem blares, Mom sheds a tear. (I'm not exaggerating.)

Lest you think this is some sort of not-so-subtle commentary on post-9/11 America, the film also lets some old-fashioned morality run rampant, particularly in the subplot focusing on the family's teenage son. We're meant to view him as a "good kid" who happens to hang out with a "bad kid," one who unemployed Dad is hilariously mean to. I guess it's somewhat justified - the two break into vacant homes, smoke pot, watch porn, and come oh so close to kissing girls. All things that Dad doesn't approve of, except maybe the last one. What a surprise when the teen ends up being the one the aliens are after. The kicker is that the aliens actually lure the kid away from his family with porn to abduct him. Lots of explanations exist for why alien abductions occur, but I'm not sure "aliens as moral arbiters" is one I've ever seen before.

This is not the alien abduction movie I wanted, but maybe it's the one that 2013 deserves. I still think it fundamentally misses the point. There are many moments in this film where the characters ask why they've been chosen to be tormented by these entities. When they receive no answers they stop questioning. Who gives a shit anyway? Just shoot 'em. I don't need explicit answers to every question in a movie like this, but these characters aren't even interested in the truth, just a quick solution and a return to the status quo. The moment when they start pulling the trigger is when the movie ceases to be about alien abductions at all. The interesting part of any abduction narrative is the questioning, the piecing together of memory and speculation to try and find an explanation while struggling with the literal alienation that occurs in the fallout of the abduction. There's some semblance of that here, but it's obscured by a plot that chooses to play on fears of the nuclear family being threatened by the Other.

I wasn't going to write about Dark Skies initially because I didn't think it deserved my time, but maybe it's a good jumping off point from which I can examine other (better) abduction flicks. Either way, more thoughts forthcoming.


  1. Eric, this is totally off topic. But I have given you an award.

    Check it out:

    1. Hi, Dusty. Thanks! I may give this a shot since my posts have been so few and far between lately. Thanks for thinking of me.