RIORI Vol 3, Installment 50: The Strause Bros’ “Skyline” (2010)



The Players…

Eric Balfour, Scottie Thompson, Donald Faison, Brittany Daniel, Crystal Reed and David Zayas.

The Story…

After their first night in LA with old friend-made-good Terry, Jarrod and Elaine wake up with one hell of a hangover. The room is spinning. The bright light of the sun is blinding. The sky peeking through the blinds is…

…Littered with alien spacecraft, sucking up people by the score. Only one thing to do: Jarrod and Elaine band together with a few survivors of last night’s bacchanal to set out and solve the mystery of what’s happening to the human race.

And their spines.

The Rant…

Special F/X are crucial—crucialto sci-fi/fantasy/action movies. Maybe crucial isn’t even the best term. Essential is a more apt term. Think about it. Could The Matrix movies be so visceral without “bullet-time?” Would the original Star Wars trilogy be as thrilling without all the Dykstra model dogfights? Hell, would the monster be as scary in Frankenstein if Karloff just thumped around in oversized boots?

My guess is no.

In these Hollywood days of endless summer blockbusters, tentpole flicks would not exist without cool, compelling and most of all “realistic” special effects. For the past twenty years, when one hears “special effects” it’s almost always equated with awesome CGI. The kind of things you seen on the screen that make your eyes pop, your spine grow weak and your bladder…whatever.

Crucial stuff nowadays. Not the bladder thing, mind you.

I’m not gonna wax philosophical about dem good ol’ days with paper moons and cardboard skies. I ain’t that dumb. Sharp pixelation or intricate models, cool F/X are cool F/X. I’m a big Ray Harryhausen fan. Those old school Godzilla films are a funny treat. Sh*t, even the old school Star Trek movies’ Enterprise looked like it could run the rings off Saturn.

Nowadays, refer to CGI to almost exclusively deliver the goods. And goods almost always do arrive on time. After watching sci-fi et al films for years, I’m continuously amazed by what those nerds can create with zeroes and ones. Face it, there would be no Jurassic Park franchise without ILM pulling the strings (even after the source novels ended after two installments). The Matrix films, either. Heck, if you think about it where would Shrek be now? Still a pop-up book probably. Without computers, today’s action flicks wouldn’t exist. Or at least look kinda clunky if it were up to teenage boys huffing model cement and trying to build a cyborg Trojan horse with their eyes all runny.

In sum, JJ Abrams’ crew’s take on the new starship Enterprise looks hella cooler with gigabytes pulsing away. Gimme the keys.

But it’s funny (and here goes the nostalgia trip), back in the day CGI was infancy, new and testy. Again, not knocking it. You gotta crawl before you can pass the “jump test.” One of my fave sci-fi flicks is Tron, and that one was denied an award from the doddering Academy for using CGI. It was the first film to do so with such shameless élan. The Oscar codgers claimed Disney cheated by using computers. Right. The preeminent animation studio grabbing hold onto the next big thing five years before the other studios. Now wipe that pudding from the chin off that old, white guy. No, the other one.

CGI back then was a toy. An experiment. Wozniuk in the basement. Brave new world and all that sh*t. In the present day it’s hard to fathom that before the present day in movies all we had to rely on for splash and dash were creative puppeteers, highly skilled makeup artists and adolescent boys with fumes in their eyes. From such humble beginnings revolutions are borne.

That and such movie magic was prescient. Duh.

Let me tell you a fave tale of mine regarding how CGI affected a typical test audience. And unplug those fingers from your collective ears.

Another one of my fave sci-fi flicks is James Cameron’s The Abyss. For the unitiated, the story deals with a crew of underwater oil miners trapped in a crippled submersible drilling platform who are visited by undersea aliens. It was Cameron’s aquatic take on The Day The Earth Stood Still, but with better F/X. Way better. Good stuff.

There’s a scene in the movie where the aliens try to make first contact with the trapped drillers. Since they are aquatic in nature, they send out a probe made of plasticized sea water. A water tentacle, as it were. Rendered in CGI, five years after Tron‘s snub. The Abyss dropped in 1989, and pre-production most likely a year prior.

Rumor has it that when the test audience first saw the CGI-rendered water tentacle for the first time, the oxygen level in the theatre dropped dramatically. As in, gasp. That’s what good CGI can do, even back in the butt-end of the 80s. Did it enhance the plot? Not really. Did it look cool and enhance the feel of the flick? I’m talking about it almost 30 years later, ain’t it?

It can get tough to find perspective these days when CGI runs riot at the multiplex. Every movie has CGI enhancement now. Be it the latest installment of The Avengers franchise (and all of its satellite projects, including those yet to me made. Or even conceived) to make the Hulk’s veins on his inner thighs look like green bacon, or keeping Meryl Streep look less hideous, or the dells of Middle Earth eternally verdant and Smaug free.

All of this is good in the final analysis. For fantasy, sci-fi and/or action films we need this kind of polish. Smart. Because there are dozens of rouge animators out there with no sane concept of using their skills and tech to better a film, keeping plot and acting and storyboarding in mind. Lookee the toys! F*uck Hausenharry! We rule the future! Who’d be so dumb as to text and drive?

Two things that. Old saws. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Absolute power and such.

Also quoting Jeff “Dr Ian Malcolm” Goldblum from the original Jurassic Park: “…Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

That and Dylan, “I’ve seen guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children.”

Sound a bit dramatic? I recall when drama held sway to story first and not pixels.

“Confirmed, Alan 1…”

It’s good to get away from it all.

Jarrod (Balfour) and his girlfriend Elaine (Thompson) got a call from their old buddy Terry (Faison). It’s his birthday! Some on out to the West Coast to celebrate! And so they do.

The invite’s not all about cocktails and cake, though. Well, it’s not only that. Terry’s a wheeler-dealer in the film industry out LA way and he might have a sweet job opportunity for Jarrod. Being a graphic designer and special effects whiz, Jarrod’s skills would be perfect for Terry’s budding empire. The only tricky thing is the perfect spin and also convincing Jarrod and Elaine to stick around.

By morning, that’s the only choice they have.

Jarrod, Terry and friends awake to a silent city. LA looks…abandoned. Where’d everybody go? And what was up with those weird, blue, mesmerizing lights that descended on the city last night?

Well, those alien, biomechanical spaceships descend from the sky and start absorbing the stragglers, answer provided.

Holy sh*t! An alien invasion! Freaks from space gobbling up LA’s populace! Jarrod and company are marooned atop Terry’s penthouse as they try desperately to escape the creatures by bouncing along—wait for it—the city’s skyline. But who can save them? The army is ineffective. The monsters are trashing the city. People are being hypnotized into willing snacks for the invaders thrive on.

Worst of all Jarrod’s hot job prospect has gone right down the toilet…

You see that post on FaceBook about the gun advocate mother asserting the importance of safety for her family only to be shot in the back by her three-year old? I’m paraphrasing. And I don’t have a fact checking department.

This is definitely a stretch, but I feel that tragic story is akin to how Skyline happened. What I mean is that the directors and producers were so enraptured by the potential the movie’s tech and F/X offered, they were blinded by all the shiny to bother considering the vital facets of good moviemaking. Namely, plot, acting and pacing.

Okay. Just a moment, and please try to ignore the crude analogy above. For the record, as well as against one of The Standard’s principle tenets, Skyline did not tank at the box office. Far from. Its original $10 million budget was paid over seven plus times. Most audiences dug it. Alien invasion films are always fun. From Independence Day to Invasion Of The Body Snatchers to War Of The Worlds, when scary creatures from outer space come down from the heavens and wreak havoc on humanity it’s laughs all around.

I didn’t laugh much over Skyline. And there was much to laugh about, but not in the way the directors might’ve planned. If you’re a thinking person or simply a nabob who likes hi-tech, sci-fi B-movies, neither mindset explains—at least to yours truly—why folks found this stupid crap appealing. I don’t care about that $70-plus million takeaway either, so muzzle it. For the sake of argument at least.

From the outset Skyline feels like a SyFy original movie. With a better budget. And speaking of that, the pretentiously credited Brothers Strause directed the bonanza Alien Vs Predator feast-for-the-eyes- and-ears franchise, as well as being on hand to help out with the F/X on James Cameron’s Avatar. So yeah, the guys know their way around amazing special F/X (and I suspect Jarrod’s career is more than a bit meta here. Just saying).

Doesn’t mean they were handy with an axe for the rest of the movie.

Skyline’s execution was awkward from scene one. My feelings about what was going down or will go down were myriad. Like despite I knew the aliens were on their way, the first act of the film felt muddled, inviting a holy host of thoughts in my brainpan if only to make sense of everything besides people’s brains being eaten.

Before I carry on now, I feel it proper to warn y’all about spoilers ahead. I know, I know. I hate them and hate using them, but this time out I felt it nigh impossible to dissect Skyline without dismantling key scenes/aspects in the movie. So from here on out, no REDACTED bullsh*t. Sorry. Beyond this point there be hungry cyborg aliens. You have been warned and you’re welcome.

Back to the whole awkwardness shenanigans. I got the feeling that Skyline‘s setup put all the pieces in place. This is SOP for almost every movie, but Skyline‘s opening came over as deliberate, not organic. I couldn’t see the gambit at first, but I sniffed one. Bad this. It’s one thing to have a film be predictable. It’s another to give the audience cue cards. Felt like the Strause’s were trying to arrest your attention with the CGI as prelude to the chaos later. The whole night at Terry’s had precious little to do with the invasion. All staged, as if to throw us a bone and wrestle a little emotional investment out of our characters (PS: didn’t work). In other words the next 90 minutes will be about collateral damage with a few humans as bookends. That’s what it looked like to me.

Another feeling I got from Skyline was that it was attempting to be some kind of “home invasion” metaphor. The movie was indeed about invasion—within and without—but its execution seemed ham-fisted. Sure the aliens keep trying to get at their prey all holed up in their luxury hi-rises, but the brief moments of humanity that pop up under those circumstances feel more like forced appreciation of our wooden, almost interchangeable cast to actually upset us when any of them get gobbled up. Paranoia can be scary. Isolation can be scary. Freakin’ hungry drones out for flesh can definitely be scary. Trying to force empathy for our movie’s heroes via said devices? Not so much.

One more thing and get I’ll off this tack. Skyline also had a Cloverfield vibe, and I didn’t like that one either. There was this kind of goofy element of mystery at work in Skyline. Where’d the invaders come from? Who knows? Why’d they come? Later on it slouches towards obvious. Why LA? Why not (maybe to obliterate studios like this one. One can only hope)? Again it was another razor thin element thrown as a sop to folks who actually pay attention instead of get all gooey over the admittedly impressive F/X. It’s not nice to scam folks like that, though.

That’s what was Skyline‘s deal. Good F/X. Not much else. The plot was derivative, as were the characters. Well, most of them. To be fair, there’s gotta be some good after sifting through the waste. The only character I liked was Oliver, the concierge. In the middle of any disaster film, we must have a convincing voice of reason. So there. All right. Anyway, Skyline was all about high tech/low budget. I know thing made a metric sh*t-ton of money off a shoestring budget. That’s not what I mean. I mean all the other vital things that could’ve made this a lot more compelling were absent. Acting, story, blah blah you’ve already heard it blah. Come to think of it, low rent might be a more apt term here. Disappointment.

One final thing before I go, and it’s all about the anti-REDACTED thing. Ostensibly being a sci-fi actioner, Skyline betrays the principle of interior logic. I’ve mentioned this before with other sci-fi films, what this gnarly beast is, but hear me out anyway.

To review: “interior logic” in a movie is when the rules make sense and are followed exactingly to ensure the story’s even flow. In other words, consider Star Wars: A New Hope. Now we know that Jedis, Chewbacca and the Millenium Falcon don’t exist. They can’t in reality, but make perfect sense in that galaxy far, far away within the context of the story. For example in the fourth chapter, Obi-wan explains to Luke the natural flow of The Force. Corny as it may have sounded, it was—and still is—a major crux of how the original trilogy operates, laying the bedrock for the other movies.


In The Phantom Menace, it’s explained that manipulation of The Force is not outside nature, but had to to do with genetics. Midichorian crap. Wait, doesn’t that go against what we learned as gospel in the original films? Yes, yes it does. Which is why Star Wars fans were up in arms about this deviation in the mythology. The rules—the logic—got changed. The source of a Jedi’s strength was now scientific and not metaphysical. And Han shot first.

In similar terms, Skyline busted up a lot of interior logic. And you don’t have to be some sci-fi wonk to not take notice.

So we got us some hungry aliens. They wish to feast on the brains and spinal columns of every human they absorb. Here’s the first part. It’s safe to assume these aliens ain’t picky. No doubt they’ve swooped down on other planets to lobotomize the constabulary for lunch. Last I checked, humans only live on Earth. So either these creatures customize their digestive tract for whatever the “smartest” species is on their target planet (and I only saw ruined humans on their ships), which was never explained. Nor was why. Or this was a professional hit. Even in Independence Day it was explained the aliens were “locusts,” scooping up any and all viable planetary resources until the world was sucked dry and to then sally forth on their endless quest for more resources. Existential, really.

Also that blue light thing. Supposedly it was used as bait to zombify humans and make them easier prey. Look into the light, lose your will to live and yum yum yum. So how does Jarrod’s triple exposure make him Thor? One would figure that if a single exposure to the dread blue light would make you weak and docile, then how would being exposed multiple times make you stronger, if not invulnerable to said light? Again, not explained or even hinted towards an answer.

Finally, apart from Jarrod’s new found paternal responsibility, how does his morphing into a cyborg get overridden by his overexposed body? I get the whole father thing, but how? And do the aliens have that keen an acumen of how the human reproductive systems works beyond the physical sh*t? Us parents know about our gut feelings towards our kids, unborn or otherwise. By Jarrod’s relatively easy hack into these avatars of supreme galactic knowledge they ain’t as sophisticated as we were led to believe over the past 80 minutes.

Whew. So that’s betrayal of interior logic with Skyline, which really gums up the script when you think about it (too much). And I don’t think the Brothers Strause placed a priority on thinking too much when watching their little pastiche. They wanted to show off 2010’s version of a water tentacle.

That they did, but not much else. C’mon, alien invasion movies need a little meat on their bones to make them fun, if not memorable. Independence Day will never be called original, smart or even revolutionary (save those model/pre-CGI F/X, whose progeny hampered the sequel BTW). The only thing I found memorable about Skyline—minus the cool CGI—was that the finale would’ve been great for a good movie.

No fear though. Someone promised a sequel. Again, you’ve been warned.

Now ignore the blue lights and get to the marina.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Despite all the awesome CGI, Skyline was laughable, predictable and above all boring. Criminal in my books regarding movies involving hungry aliens. Regarding everything actually.

Stray Observations…

  • “What is i—ust run”
  • Same F/X used in Avatar? What a waste.
  • Sure, kill of the black guy/name-recognition actor first.
  • Nice lens flare there.
  • Kamikaze. I get it. Pretty cool.

Next Installment…

Nerdy Denis finally gets up the nerve to declare I Love You, Beth Cooper to the object of his affection. Much to his surprise, Beth responds, just not in some Sixteen Candles kind of way.

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