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Skylines review: a conventional turn for a wild science-fiction action

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Skylines review: a conventional turn for a wild science-fiction action 2

There’s an obvious rule for action sequels: Go bigger. That was easy enough for the team behind 2017’s Beyond Skyline, the over-the-top sequel to 2010’s “worldwide alien invasion on a budget” movie Skyline. The first film in the franchise set so much of the story in a single high-rise condo, where a few fearful survivors hole up to escape the aliens, that it’s a full-on shock when directors Greg and Colin Strause finally reveal that they have bigger ambitions than a bottle-episode film. The sequel, produced by the Strauses with Liam O’Donnell taking over as director, took the story halfway around the world, and morphed it into a joyously trashy martial-arts pulp saga.

The series’ biggest hallmark has always been its outrageousness: the first film introduces grotesque alien technology that rips human brains out of their bodies, brainwashes them, and uses them to run huge, heavily armored drone warriors called Pilots. The sequel sees an infant infected with alien DNA and growing into a child with powers over the aliens — just in time to help the survivors fight off newer and more eye-popping threats. Every development along the way in the first two films was imaginative, unexpected, and gleefully over-the-top violent. So it feels strange that the series capper, Skylines, is so conventional in both its story beats and its action. The first two movies are packed with “I can’t believe that just happened!” moments. The third one instead chains together a series of “Oh yeah, I’ve seen this before” scenes.

Beyond Skyline ends with a rousing cliffhanger, as the alien-infected infant, Rose (Lindsey Morgan), grown to adulthood, leads an armada of stolen and repurposed alien ships against the invading mothership. It’s the perfect setup for a big action scene, to set the stage for whatever’s next. But returning director O’Donnell just fast-forwards past that action, briefly summing up how it went: Rose froze up at a bad moment and wound up having to destroy one of her own ships and kill her own people to win the fight. Five years later, she’s in hiding near London, in a survivors’ camp where rescued Pilots live peacefully enough among humanity.

Lindsey Morgan and her co-stars in military gear, under blue light, waving their guns threateningly

Photo: Vertical Entertainment

That alone is a story seed that could launch a thousand novels: it’s fascinating that literally billions of former humans, now crammed into terrifying, monstrous alien bodies, have reintegrated into society, and no one seems to bat an eye at them stumping around. What little Skylines shows of the post-apocalyptic human world looks a lot like a cleaner, less crowded version of District 9, where half the population have become clicky, chitinous, buglike humanoids, and that’s just an accepted fact of life. O’Donnell’s script doesn’t take a breath to reflect on any of this, though. Rose has just enough time to catch up with her local doctor friend Dr. Mal (Rhona Mitra) and learn that the Pilots are suffering from a mysterious disease that may reassert their alien programming, turning them back into indiscriminate human-killing machines. Then Rose is scooped up and hauled off by a vaguely sketched military organization that wants her help in their next big push against the aliens.

As General Radford (Deep Space Nine’s Alexander Siddig) explains, the inevitable McGuffin he’s after is the core drive of the alien mothership, which warped elsewhere when Rose destroyed the ship. His staff hacker Zhi (Cha-Lee Yoon) has broken into the alien warp network, and can instantly transmit a ship to the source planet. So Radford wants to send a crack team of commandos there, to what’s presumably the aliens’ home base. He hopes both to retrieve the core drive — which will supposedly help power Earth’s three billion pilots and prevent them from going critically insane — and to hit the aliens on their home turf.

His strike team: bulletheaded grunt Corporal Leon (Jonathan Howard, as the clear Corporal Hicks analogue), tough ranger Alexi (Ieva Andrejevaite, playing something between Vasquez and The Matrix’s Switch), and sniper/SEAL Colonel Owens (Daniel Bernhardt). And to round out the crew, Rose’s brother Trent, one of the first free Pilots, is in the mix to deliver the film’s best wisecracks and handle the bulk of the claw-to-claw fighting.

Early on in the story, as Radford lays out the plan, Alexi tells Rose, “This is no war. This is a heist.” That’s a tremendous idea that never pays off. Part of the fun of the Skyline series has been the way it abruptly and unpredictably swerves between genres, from horror to science fiction to run-and-gun action to emotional family drama. If Skylines actually were a heist movie, with some deft planning and a crackerjack crew of specialists trying to finagle an alien artifact off an alien world, that would at least be something genre fans haven’t seen before. (Independence Day’s much-mocked stealth virus upload aside.) Instead, the team steps out of their ship, and straight into Aliens. The costumes, the personalities, the protocols, the murky setting full of heavily armored bitey critters, the endlessly moist and gooey surfaces, the specific action beats, even the climax set in a hangar bay that eventually vents into space — they all feel too familiar.

And where Skylines isn’t aping Aliens, it’s repeating material from the wilder and more inventive early installments. Martial-arts stalwart Yayan Ruhian briefly reprises his role as a Laotian militia leader ready to take down aliens with spin-kicks and throat-rips. Like the first two films, Skylines features plenty of Pilots struggling to reassert their human sides, as their many eyes flash between “normal helpful human brain” red and “indiscriminate murder-monster” blue. There’s knife combat and gun combat and hand-to-hand combat, though the only fight that really stands out is a nasty close-quarters scalpel fight between humans with conflicting agendas. But just about every part of the story is by-the-book, with twists that savvy viewers will see coming before the first act is over, and tropes that have already played out in a dozen bigger, more iconic films.

Alexander Siddig looms menacingly in Skylines

Photo: Vertical Entertainment

O’Donnell does work on giving Skylines some human warmth, as Rose struggles with her powers and her reluctant-Messiah syndrome, and with the trauma of having failed so many survivors while trying to save even more. A grim conversation between her and Leon, who blames her for his sister’s death in the mothership fight, adds some pathos that feels a little alien to the series, given how much of its previous desperate human connection happened on the run and in the middle of panting combat. But the conversation feels like it’s checking a box. In retrospect, skipping that opening fight scene — the root of Rose’s trauma and guilt, and the beginning of the doubts she struggles with throughout this film — seems like a huge mistake, and not just because it’s a missed opportunity for the series’ signature gleeful special-effects mayhem. Most of her characterization comes from something that was narrated more than felt, and it leaves her a little hollow as a character.

Skylines feels like the respectable thirtysomething iteration of a familiar friend who used to be a rowdy teen, then a reckless and wild twentysomething. It’s perfectly passable low-key science fiction, almost certainly destined for a fast trip to Netflix, where it can be taken up as an amiable evening’s viewing. There’s nothing egregiously bad or sloppy about it, and for the action fans it’s aimed at — the particular kind of cinephiles who’ll be gleeful to see action veteran James Cosmo turning up as the film’s genial one-eyed opening narrator — it should be enjoyable enough. But there are no surprises. There’s none of the glorious gory shock of the series’ original brain-ripping effects, or the cheer-along energy of the second film’s pitched martial-arts duels. It’s a perfectly okay science fiction movie. It’s just that this series promised so much more.

Skyline is on HBO Max, Beyond Skyline is on Netflix, and both films are widely available for streaming rental. Skylines is now available for rental on Amazon, Vudu, and other streaming services.

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