Sony — which will release the big-budget science-fiction flick Battle: Los Angeles this coming spring — is pissed at the makers of Skyline. Which seems, at first glance, to be a ridiculous stance to take. So what if we’ve got yet another example of dueling studio flicks with similar themes? Hollywood survived the Deep Impact–Armageddon duality. And Antz and A Bug’s Life released back to back. And Mission to Mars and Red Planet bumping up against each other. What’s the big deal?
The big deal, as it turns out, is that Skyline directors, the brother team of Colin and Greg Strause, are mostly FX experts… and they’re currently working on creating the alien-invasion FX for — wait for it — Battle: Los Angeles. In fact, Skyline went from nothing more than an inkling of a concept to its release this past Friday entirely within the production schedule of Battle: Los Angeles. No, really: the Strauses were already working on B:LA when they said to each other, “Hey, let’s make a movie about aliens attacking Los Angeles.” And they did it.
Still, I would have tended to side with the little guys here — the Strauses pulled off Skyline on a tenth of the budget of B:LA, and released the film themselves, independent of studio involvement — even if it required stretching the benefit of the doubt in their favor. No one owns an idea, after all, only the execution of that idea.
That said, Skyline looks like evidence Sony could well use in a courtroom trial to convince a jury that the Strauses harbored some malice aforethought to crash Sony’s alien-invasion movie. (Motive remains a mystery. Except, I suppose, that the Strauses’ fee for B:LA will have been paid upfront, most likely, before that film’s release, and isn’t dependent on box office… and with Skyline they’re double-dipping at the same geek audience, basically poaching, perhaps, from B:LA’s potential viewership.) This isn’t a movie: it’s an FX demo reel. I mean, that is quite literally what the movie looks and feels like: dramatic and sometimes original designs of alien ships and alien creatures and one clever visual riff on Independence Day, but no measurable story and no genuine characters to care about, even in a tiny sense. What passes for a script — written by Joshua Cordes and Liam O’Donnell, who are not screenwriters but are, in fact, design guys with Hydraulx, the Strauses’ FX house — is rife with nonsensical contradictions, logical idiocies, and outrageous clichés. Worse, Skyline isn’t about anything: it doesn’t reflect any contemporary fears that afflict individual people or anxieties that grip our entire culture. It has nothing to say beyond: “Don’t alien ships in the skies over Los Angeles look sorta interesting, and perhaps you would like to hire us to create the FX for your next sci-fi action film?”
There’s a shocking lack of anything approaching, you know, content in Skyline, and you don’t need to know any of that background stuff with Sony and Battle: Los Angeles and the Brothers Strause to appreciate that this is a disgusting instance of taking advantage of an audience primed for the genre. This may be an independent film, but it wouldn’t exist — couldn’t exist — absent the studio-fostered environment in which a movie can coast purely on its marketing — which, again, relies solely on those FX-generated images of spaceships over Los Angeles — to a debut that, while modest, still recoups its production costs. Estimates peg Skyline earning around $11 million this past weekend, because there are enough people willing to pay to see a movie based solely on a few cool images. This may be the most egregious example yet of how Hollywood actively disdains word of mouth as long as it knows it can fool some of the people some of the time. It’s one thing not to show a film to critics because it’s the kind of film that audiences will love no matter how badly egghead critics trash it. This is a movie that will leave even undemanding fans of the genre angry. There is no one for whom this movie is actually intended. It exists only to take money from moviegoers and give them nothing in return.
That stench of disdain for its own audience is all over Skyline. Hungover partygoers at a ritzy L.A. high-rise awaken the morning after to see huge alien ships hovering over the city, dropping globs of blue light that draw in mesmerized humans, and then suck them up into the ships “like the goddamned Rapture,” one person says. Yet it’s easy to hide from the small scout ships sent out to scoop up the left-behind humans by, say, cowering behind a kitchen counter or just drawing the blinds. We spent much of the movie hiding out with Jarrod (Eric Balfour: The Spirit, In Her Shoes), who’s in L.A. visiting his old pal Terry (Donald Faison: Robot Chicken: Star Wars, Uptown Girls). Elaine (Scottie Thompson: Star Trek), Jarrod’s girlfriend, has been vomiting, which only ever means one thing in movies, and this constitutes the great drama of the flick. And not the aliens harvesting humans from the streets. Although both will get tied together in the absolutely ridiculous ending. Which sets up — gods help us — a sequel.
Perhaps the most egregious crime Skyline commits is not the ludicrous, empty dialogue — “Like it or not, this is happening” — or the lack of anything approaching involving characters or an intriguing story, but the fact that the film itself is only interested in looking at FX as an audience. The Strauses and their useless screenwriters have structured a “story,” such as it is, in which the character can barely look at what’s going on… so they invent a way for Jarrod and Co. to watch the ships outside through the drawn blinds, but hooking a telescope up to a TV and retransmitting the images there.
That’s right: In a movie about alien spaceships in the sky right in front of them, the characters are forced to watch it on TV. If the Strauses wanted to ensure that we did not accidentally get caught up in an authentic-seeming tale of survival and terror, they couldn’t have come up with a better way to distance us from it.