Beyond Skyline (2017)

Synopsis – A tough-as-nails detective embarks on a relentless pursuit to free his son from a nightmarish alien warship.

My Take – While I genuinely enjoy alien invasion films in any form, last year’s Independence Day: Resurgence made me realize than even I have my limits. Seven years back, I remember another film which made me go through the same emotions, directors Colin and Greg Strause‘s film, Skyline, a relatively small budgeted science fiction thriller that operated on the same blockbuster-on-a-budget scale, but to terrible results. The film was so insanely bad that, despite being known specifically for their special effects work that includes Avatar, The Avengers, Looper, X-Men films, the recently released Geostorm, the Strause brothers film was subject to widespread derision from both critics and general audiences alike, mainly for being an over-CGI’ed mess that prioritized the unimpressive effects, putting giant, complicated, violent aliens all over the screen in an effort to over-compensate for its poor storyline. Yet, despite the royal dish out in the form of 15% on Rotten Tomatoes and a current 4.4 rating from users on IMDb, the film did manage to make a decent profit by grossing $78 million on a budget of $10-20 million hereby making the prospect of a sequel seem like a good idea for the filmmakers. When a sequel was finally announced on their official Facebook page, I remember thinking, why? Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian (stars of The Raid franchise) were teaming up with Frank Grillo to star in a sequel that someone would try to resuscitate a science fiction film that almost no one wanted to see again. In a surprising turn of events, I’d like to report that this film is actually a decent sequel. Here, first-time writer/director Liam O’Donnell seems to have learned a lot from the predecessor’s a-tad-too-serious execution of the campy material and not only took on the unenviable task of bringing back a film rarely thought about since its failure, but has also done the impossible: made a fun, ambitious sequel that doesn’t even require you to watch the original.

Sure, like its predecessor, this film too has its fair share of CGI and special effects (sometimes not very good), but this time, it doesn’t feel as though it’s disguising a lack of plot with distracting visuals, mainly as the action serves a purpose and adds a genuine intensity, driving the plot forward and generating necessary suspense. Of course, it’s not perfect and there are many moments when you’ll have to suspend your disbelief especially to adjust to some weird convolutions, but hey, at lead director Liam O’Donnell dials back on the manic pacing, as he shifts focus to show the same alien invasion from a different perspective. Taking place in the same timeline as the original film, the story follows Mark Corley (Frank Grillo), a Los Angeles police detective, who followed by his wife’s recent passing is having a tough time connecting with his son Trent (Jonny Weston). As soon as he bails Trent out of lock-up for getting in yet another fight and heads home on the subway, a giant spaceship appears over the city, putting everything on hold. As the alien ships start scooping up humans by the thousands, Mark and Trent team up with train driver, Audrey (Bojana Novakovic); fellow police officers, Sandra and Garcia (Betty Gabriel and Jacob Vargas); and blind Vietnam veteran Sarge (Antonio Fargas), in order to avoid detection and get out of the city. However, they do get caught, and manage to escape from the space ship with a rapidly-growing, red-eyed newborn daughter of the last film’s protagonists, into Laos, where they meet tough crook Sua (Iko Uwais), his sister Kanya (Pamelyn Chee), Australian doper chemist Harper (Callan Mulvey) and a long-haired feral rogue cop known as the Chief (Yayan Ruhian) – who wind up pitching in against the aliens. Well, don’t get me wrong, this film is just about as dumb as the first film but where it shifts is that it knowingly leans into the sillier moments and combined with some kick-ass action sequences, the whole thing ends up being one hell of an entertaining ride. The whole setup is basically similar in one way and another to the original setup; but, once the alien ship started abducting human, the film’s plot begins to converge with the original and, at the same time, begins to bring the film forward to its cranial fun. Don’t be mistaken, if you’re looking for a thoughtful sci-fi film on the level of Arrival or Ex Machina, then this is not going to be in your wheelhouse as this film is a mix of madness all crammed into just over 105 minutes; on one hand it’s brighter, bolder and significantly more badass than the original, and on the other, it’s totally, unequivocally preposterous. Yes, it’s pretty trashy like a Syfy original film kind of way and it borrows a lot from previous sci-fi features and there’s nothing thematic that you’ve not seen before. You might find it as a familiar blend of Independence Day and the campiest of Alien: Resurrection; but, that doesn’t mean the film has lost its B-film ‘charm.’ The plot is as convoluted as the original, filled with loose threads, cliché-ridden dialogues, and tons of absurdity cramp the story. Yet, it wasn’t until the moment when the alien ship crashed onto an anachronistic Southeast Asian country (filmed in Batam & Yogyakarta, Indonesia) that the film begins to reach its craziest part. Seemingly, alien invasion tropes aren’t enough, as the film also injects some nostalgic Vietnam memo and drug-dealing tropes into the plot. Admittedly, the first 20 minutes or so of the film aren’t particularly encouraging as director O’Donnell spends about half the time basically remaking the original film, before (rather hilariously) going beyond it, tying together three or four completely different films-worth of plotting into one constantly meandering spectacle.

The first act of the film is essentially a survival film of people trying to evade the invasion; the second act is your science-fiction action film, as we learn more of the nuance involved in the abduction process, and are introduced to the aliens in a much more confrontational manner; then the third act tacks a martial arts adventure onto its already action-packed science-fiction plot — there’s so much happening that you can’t help but laugh and that is a good thing. What’s a bad thing is that the film lacks restraint, and makes all the human emotion contained within fall flat. There’s a relationship between Trent and Mark that becomes difficult to care about, especially when it becomes heavily sci-fi. 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 80s-era pulp science fiction, with ultra-modern CGI effects merging with just-short-of-camp badassery. It doesn’t really slow down for rest of its running time, and even when it does for a few brief minutes, it’s to twist the story in an unexpected way. You probably don’t need to have seen the first film to understand what’s happening in the plot of this one, but the narrative does include a connection to it (with the help of some barely-noticeable recasting). Indeed the lack of explanation for certain aspects of the film might be its biggest flaw, and it has some huge logic gaps, for example, 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 grunt filled 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. They also throw in some interesting ideas here and there but never fully develop it. 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. Director O’Donnell who served as a producer on the first and has worked on a myriad of VFX teams brings his vast knowledge to the fray and makes a film that while in moments obviously on a budget still looking pretty darn slick when it absolutely had to with over 1700 VFX shots in the entire film. Everything here is a step up from the first entry and even the aliens themselves get an upgrade with awesome Predator-esque suits and some Kaiju action thrown in for good measure. What was most impressive is that the aliens were mostly done practically and are used in fight scenes; they are only done with CG in some of the wide shots. We also get some cool new weapons including an awesome arm knife that Mark uses to battle the invaders. Practical effects were used when needed, and the alien suits are very well-integrated into green screen-heavy special effects that only occasionally become a little noticeable. Adding a splash of kaiju fights to the film would have been a bad idea if the special effects budget wasn’t there, but damn, was it ever. Sure, it’s no Pacific Rim, but it’s pretty close, and there’s nothing I could do but smile throughout each large-scale assault. Performance wise, there is not much actually required to anchor such kind of film, yet action star Frank Grillo, like always shines in his lead role. Indonesian actors Iko Uwais & Yayan Ruhian also seem to be having a blast here. In supporting roles, Bojana Novakovic, Callan Mulvey and Jonny Weston also play their parts well.  On the whole, ‘Beyond Skyline’ is a surprisingly entertaining actioner that is both mindblowingly silly and superior to its predecessor.

Directed – Liam O’Donnell

Starring – Frank Grillo, Bojana Novakovic, Iko Uwais

Rated – R

Run Time – 105 minutes

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