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The Brothers Strause
Eric Balfour
Scottie Thompson
Brittany Daniel
Crystal Reed
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The Brothers Strause is the hip sounding industry moniker of visual effects artists and all-round wizz kids Colin and Greg Strause -- the founders of the VFX company Hydraulx that’s been instrumental in providing stunning up-to-the-minute and innovative CGI work for many of the biggest effects-driven Hollywood blockbusters of the last few years, such as “Avatar”, “Iron Man 2”, ”2012” and “300”. With this their first self-directed feature, “Skyline”, the duo venture into the world of independent filmmaking in an alien invasion flick written by their producer colleagues Liam O’Donnell and Kristian Andreson, and the Strause’s second-unit director Joshua Cordes. But lest anyone be under any illusion that the film’s ‘independent’ status means the team’s approach is in any way likely to be ‘low-key’ or ‘small’ , “Skyline” probably features more CGI-related globs of action and spectacle than you’ll see in nearly any other film bar the work of James Cameron. Unfortunately, the ability to create awe-inspiring, impressively fantastical, super-dynamic animated visuals doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with an aptitude for originality or piquancy in the screenwriting stakes. It comes as no surprise in the end that “Skyline” has predominantly been scripted by producers, since it ends up feeling like a rather over-cooked stew made with a huge range of ingredients culled from just about every alien invasion film that’s ever been made in the last thirty years. Although it’s never short of jaw-dropping spectacle, every emotional beat feels like a cliché we’ve seen a million times before until it’s finally become null and meaningless. This soup of aliens-bring-about-the-end-of-the-world influences ultimately fails to produce any single flavour that gives distinctive definition and character to the work, and indeed, the film seems to change gear and become something entirely different in the final act, which culminates in a disgraceful, sequel-baiting non-ending that by rights should have had theatre-goers cueing for their money back!   

Perhaps something of the authors’ creative desperation can be discerned in the fact that they’ve made one of the film’s main protagonists a visual effects artist! Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and his Megan Fox-lookalike girlfriend Elaine (Scottie Thompson) arrive in Los Angeles, where Jarrod’s former Brooklyn street artist buddy Terry (Donald Faison) is now a Hollywood player in the visual effects industry -- a job which has apparently resulted in access to a wealthy lifestyle spent driving about in a sleek Mercedes and living in a luxury minimalist flat in a high-rise condominium complex with helicopter pads on the roofs and a huge, shimmering swimming pool in the surrounding grounds. Presumably this is a fairly accurate representation of the directors’ lifestyle, since the whole film was shot in the condominium Colin Strause actually does live in, with most of it shot in his  flat as part of a typical independent film cost-saving exercise that, ironically, results in the movie looking five times more expensive than it would have if they’d simply built sets! Jarrod has come for a relaxing holiday, lounging in the LA sun by the swimming pool with his girlfriend, his old mate Terry, and a pretty bikini-clad twosome made up of Terry’s spoilt blonde girlfriend Candice (Brittany Daniel) and his much put-upon personal assistant Denise (Crystal Reed). However, he doesn’t know that Terry plans to use the vacation as a run-up to offering him a job in his multi-million pound company – potentially bringing Jarrod into Terry’s rarefied, sun-drenched world of LA luxury living. The problem is that Elaine has just dropped the bombshell that she’s pregnant, and Jarrod is uneasy about the life-changing alternatives that are suddenly being offered up to him.  

Well, never mind because -- only one night into the vacation -- aliens have decided to bring about the end of the world! That night, alluring blue light-beams descend from the heavens all over the city. Anyone who looks upon them is immediately drawn forward as though these arcs of light were mythological Sirens. With eyes affecting a zombie’s blank-eyed gaze and veins bulging with a putrid black, all victims are zapped up into the blue-lit night in a perverse parody of Rapture mythology. It turns out that our wealthy friends in the condominium are about the only people with a chance of survival, protected in their towering high-rise setting: another wave of attacks occurs in the morning and our protagonists witness clouds of tiny dots that turn out to be millions of (presumably less rich) people being lifted into the bowels of huge, monolithic ships that are now gliding above the city like Lovecraftian behemoths, hoovering up everyone in their path. Soon, the ships are sending out giant ‘tanker’ creatures and gruesome tentacled ‘drones’ that look like a half-way-house between Transformer-style mecha-robot and monster sea-creature -- with their spiky, silvery finish augmented by flesh-creeping  slipperiness and a gooey black oil-like substance for blood.  The objective of these aliens soon becomes perfectly clear: kill everyone without mercy if they won’t be harvested, and, since  ‘being harvested’ turns out to mean having your brain sucked out of your skull and deposited inside one of the many varieties of alien beasties themselves, these two options aren’t exactly distinguished by their great variety.

The visual influences here are mostly obvious and fairly recent: “District 9” lends the film the image of a city being subsumed by something even more monolithic and sophisticated than anything human thought could comprehend. The sense of a once apparently unassailable Western civilisation coming to an end through the whim of vast and incompressible alien beings with power beyond measure comes from “Independence Day”, “Cloverfield” and, perhaps even more so, “The Mist” (which does everything “Skyline” would like to do, but a million times more effectively). The alien designs themselves have more than a little bit of HR Giger about them and the aliens’ ruthless violence brings to mind the relentless horror of “Starship Troopers”. Once the threat becomes established, the film sinks into a lethargic re-tread of every siege movie cliché imaginable, distinguished only by the luxuriousness of the group’s apartment.  Our heroes bicker over the best course of action, even though the threat is so huge and all-consuming that it seems obvious from the start that they have few options. A valet called Oliver (David Zayas) joins the group, but there is instant tension between him and Jarrod since Oliver believes they should stay put within the apparent safety of the high-rise facility, while Jarrod thinks the group should aim to escape the city and set sail from the nearby harbour, since their view from the upper-storey seems to suggest there are no alien ships over the ocean.

This is the same conflict dynamic set up in “Night of the Living Dead” of course, and the screenplay adds further zombie references with its version of the ‘zombie bite’ sequence; for repeated exposure to the alien Siren Light seems to be resulting in a physical change in Jarrod’s person (we then get the usual zombie movie shot of Jarrod being disturbed while examining the changes that seem to be occurring on his torso, and quickly covering them up when someone else walks in on him in the bathroom). Thus, the relationship between Jarrod and Elaine is threatened by  the increasing uncertainty about how much Jarrod’s loyalty to the group can be counted on, echoing the doubt introduced by Jarrod’s circumspect reaction to the news that Elaine was pregnant earlier in the film.

In “Cloverfield” the whole film became an affirmation of undying love in the face of the apocalyptic destruction of the world. “The Mist” perfectly encapsulated the sense of human helplessness and isolation in the face of something both incomprehensible and, from a human perspective, totally evil. At first “Skyline” seems to be trying to evoke similar feelings – the shots of the mother-ship silently hovering like a giant space whale are both sinister and awe inspiring --  but then realises that its weak characterisation means it  isn’t up to the job and, about two-thirds of the way through, decides to become a comic-book knock-about instead. The visual effects are fantastic but overpower everything else in the end; the soundtrack frequently resorts to middle-of-the-road rock music overlay and the cast are mostly all beautiful, gym-toned and rich. By the time we get the massive, spectacular Star Wars-style battle between auto-pilot planes sent in by the army and the alien kamikaze drones, the film has abandoned any sense of real-world drama, especially when the mother ship is blown up in a thermo-nuclear explosion (and no, this isn’t giving the end away) right outside the protagonists’ window, and instead of being instantly melted and vaporised they merely impassively look at it as though they’re watching the whole thing on TV! There’s a big showdown on the roof later on, in which Jarrod demonstrates his love for his woman, but it’s pitched at such a hysterical level of unreality that one fails to feel anything as we watch the duo dodging shrapnel from the multiple dogfights occurring all around them with ease. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t attempt a daringly downbeat ending (although not that original in the light of “Cloverfield” and “The Mist”) but they even bugger that up to a certain extent with an absurd coda, clearly preparing the viewer for a sequel that promises to be an entirely different sort of film from the one we at least thought we were getting with “Skyline”.

 On both of the commentaries that are included on the DVD or Blu-ray versions released by Momentum Pictures, we’re told that this film is actually a prequel to the next movie, rather than the intended follow-up being a sequel to this one. One gets the feeling, though, that that’s merely a post-rationalisation for a film that simply loses track of its original aims and settles for wowing us instead with flashy CGI bluster and lots of comic book imagery – the one area in which the directors know they’re on assured ground – rather than developing a story with an truthful emotional core and characters we can really care about, instead of ones constructed from a collection of movie clichés.

“Skyline” isn’t a bad film. It isn’t in any way poorly made or badly acted. It is simply just another film, of a certain type we’ve seen countless times before about the end of the world – in which you end up not really caring about the implications of that mind-blowing fact at all, and simply look forward to the next cool effect -- like the monster tentacle pulling down a helicopter, or an expensive car being crushed by a towering, dinosaur-like tanker alien. If that’s all you’re after, then you’ll probably be entertained by this film, but it is unlikely to linger long in your mind afterwards.

The UK DVD from Momentum features two commentaries – one by directors Colin and Greg Strause and the other by co-writer/producer Liam O’Donnell and co-writer/second unit director Joshua Cordes. Both concentrate on the participant’s individual areas of expertise and are informative enough about the work that went into the making of the movie, which was shot on digital video rather than 35mm film. It shows how much the technology has moved on that you’d be really hard pressed to notice the difference. The disc also features deleted, extended and alternate scenes, all with optional commentary, plus the pre-visualization computer animation for two of the film’s big effects set-pieces; and finally, teaser and theatrical trailers (unusually, also with a commentary option) are here as well. You can also download a free digital copy of the movie once you purchase either the DVD or Blu-ray versions.  

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