Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from Cinepocalypse, which runs from November 2nd to November 9th at Chicago’s Music Box Theater.
Fans of 2010’s science fiction indie thriller Skyline may remember that it ends in a thoroughly insane place. Directors Colin and Greg Strause set most of their high-tech adventure in a fancy high-rise condo, where a group of friends celebrating a birthday party wind up hiding from an alien invasion that is devastating Los Angeles. Most indies on this budget scale would just use offscreen lights and sparing CGI to keep the alien threat minimal and mysterious, but the Strause brothers are special-effects artists with extensive experience on films including Avatar, The Avengers, Looper, and the X-Men movies. (More recently, Greg worked on Stranger Things season 1, and Colin worked on Geostorm, both through their effects company, Hydraulx.) In Skyline, they prioritized the effects, putting giant, complicated, violent aliens all over the screen. The finale takes place inside a massive alien ship, where the action gets wild, messy, and thoroughly original.
Those effects seem to come from a much grander, pricier movie than Skyline. (At least that’s what Sony claimed, when it sued the Strauses, initially claiming they’d used the assets they developed for Battle: Los Angeles on their own movie. Sony later dropped the case.) The sequel, Beyond Skyline, operates on the same blockbuster-on-a-budget scale. The Strauses consulted, but they’re out as directors; this time out, Skyline co-writer Liam O’Donnell is at the helm, in his directorial debut. He kept the designs from the first Skyline, but initially, he dials back on the more manic pacing, as he shifts focus to show the same alien invasion from a different perspective. Then the action shifts to the interior of the alien ship again… and the world gets extremely messy.
What’s the genre?
Science-fiction thriller, with a little bit of domestic drama, a little bit of martial-arts mayhem, and a whole lot of angry aliens.
What’s it about?
Los Angeles cop Mark Corley (Frank Grillo, recently of Netflix’s propulsive Wheelman) is on leave from the force after his wife’s death, and he’s at war with his adult son Trent (Jonny Weston), who is lashing out because of his own anger and grief. Mark is drinking too much, Trent is fighting too much, and both of them are headed for trouble. Then aliens start tearing the city apart, and everything else stops mattering. Except that Mark keeps aaaaaaalmost losing Trent to those aliens, and every single time it happens, Mark goes charging into danger to try to save his boy. The action eventually moves onto the alien ship, then to an unnamed country in Southeast Asia (Indonesia, standing in for Laos). There, Mark meets human resistance fighters Sua and Kanya, played by martial-arts star Iko Uwais and Singapore actress Pamelyn Chee.
There’s a lot more business going on in Beyond Skyline, including an encounter with the survivors of Skyline (now played by different performers), some mighty familiar business involving a fast-growing infant with alien DNA, and some flash-forwards that aren’t particularly well integrated into the story. But mostly, it’s a combination of stressed-out family drama and run-and-gun alien warfare.
What’s it really about?
This is a pretty what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of movie. At most, there’s a hint of a theme about family being where you find it. Nearly everyone in the film is devoted to someone in their lives, and fighting as much for that person’s safety as for their own. And with a little straining, you could interpret the whole film as saying “Your problems are comparatively petty, and you’d set aside all your differences with the people you love if things suddenly got bad enough.” But mostly, this film is a series of big, explosive action beats, the kind of movie that features a lot of people screaming other people’s names as bad things happen.
Is it good?
It’s pretty trashy, in a Syfy original movie kind of way. Beyond Skyline has a grave and thoughtful setup, with Mark and Trent digging up old grievances at each other, and suggesting a kind of shared suffering that neither of them knows how to acknowledge. The Laos segment pokes a little at America’s foreign policy, and the ways institutional corruption harms vulnerable people first. But even so, this isn’t a particularly serious story. It feels more like a throwback to They Live-era pulp science fiction, with ultra-modern CGI effects merging with just-short-of-camp badassery.
Put it this way: at one point in this film, a woman gives birth without taking her pants off first. (They suddenly disappear somewhere in editing.) Childbirth consists of two grunty pushes, and the mother instantly dropping dead because the story doesn’t need her anymore. The resulting baby is perfectly clean, has no umbilical cord, and appears to be about six months old. This is the kind of details-light, realism-indifferent storytelling that’s always concerned with a fast rush to the next action beat, and past the introduction, O’Donnell has no time for anything but the most rudimentary character-building.
But with that understanding, Beyond Skyline becomes an enjoyably loopy thrill-ride, full of sudden shifts and turns. It doesn’t adhere to familiar story logic: characters who seem to be significant die in arbitrary, abrupt ways, and the level of alien threat fluctuates considerably, depending on whether a given scene calls for a hand-to-hand throwdown or a kaiju-sized super-battle. That sheer randomness makes it unpredictable and unexpected, full of “Whoa! Okay, sure, why the hell not?” moments.
And the effects really are impressive. O’Donnell builds an entire unnerving alien world inside the ship, one that hits both ends of the alien conceptual spectrum: shiny and slimy. Science fiction stories usually pick one aesthetic or another, and seeing both in the same space just highlights how truly, weirdly alien these aliens are. The same goes for the lumbering, linguini-faced Cthulhu-monsters that chase down some of the characters, and the aliens’ entire human-brain-powered world interface. Beyond Skyline is propulsive, and explosive, and manic, but above all, it’s charmingly weird and absolutely memorable.
What should it be rated?
There’s no sex or nudity, but there certainly is some blood. That said, it’s mostly over-the-top in a nearly comedic sort of way, like when one man gets his arm torn off by aliens and keeps on fighting. As he keeps losing limbs, he comes across as an only mildly serious parallel to the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In spite of the death of most of humanity, and a few grueling scenes involving wrenched-open bellies or brainpans, this is really more a PG-13 movie than an R.
How can I actually watch it?
In Chicago, filmgoers can catch it at Cinepocalypse. It’s already out in Indonesia. For everyone else, Beyond Skyline will have a limited theatrical release and same-day VOD release on December 15th, 2017.