What is the modern B-movie?
I ask because I don’t think it means what it used to mean. There was a time when B-movies were the programmers, the lower-budget lower-expectations, and the subject matter was usually more lurid so that it could appeal to an audience without the benefit of big movie stars. The ’70s blockbuster explosion was led by movies that were essentially bigger-budget B-movies. When you look at some of the giant movies of the era, they were films that would have been relegated to drive-ins if they’d been produced in slightly different manner. “It’s the story of a giant shark that eats a bunch of people near a summer resort.” “It’s the story of a space farmer and a space pirate who team up with a space wizard to rescue a space princess.” These are B-movies that became something else by virtue of how they were executed, and these days, it seems like most of the films that studios treat as giant tentpole movies are cut from that same cloth.
So what is a real B-movie today? Is it something like the dreck that The Asylum pumps out, no-budget versions of big-budget movies rushed into video stores to piggyback on a studio’s marketing campaign? Is it the sort of fare that Magnet/Magnolia release using their multi-platform strategies? To be a true B-movie, shouldn’t we be considering studio releases only? Because if that’s true, you can discount the entire direct-to-video market. And if that’s true, then something like “Skyline” would probably be the perfect model of what a B-movie is these days, and the film’s problems are just as interesting as the things it gets right.
Hydraulx is an FX house first, but with “Skyline,” they’re taking their first step into film production as well, and the idea of doing everything in-house is maybe the only way we’re going to see independent voices in genre film in the future. Because they knew they would be doing their own work on the film, everything builds towards the FX sequences, and they are amazing considering this is a film that cost Hydraulx significantly less than most people would think. IMDb has $10 million quoted as the film’s budget, but you could have made five or six “Skylines” for that much. This is a very small film, and the scope of the story is about what you’d expect in that case, an entire apocalypse as glimpsed from the balcony of one apartment building in Los Angeles.
Aside from the panoramic shots of mayhem in Los Angeles at large, everything takes place in and around the apartment and the building where Terry (Donald Faison) lives. He’s a rich FX house owner (which would suggest that the “Skyline” team is writing about what they know) who is celebrating a birthday. He flies in his best friend from college, Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and Jarrod’s girlfriend Elaine (Scottie Thompson), and along with Terry’s girlfriend Candice (Brittany Daniel) and secretary Denise (Crystal Reed), they spend a long night partying. In the middle of the night, as they try to sleep it off, an alien invasion begins, and the rest of the movie is just a matter of them trying to survive.
The characters are thin to the point of annoyance, and as much as I like Faison, I don’t feel like he’s used well here, and Balfour just doesn’t register as a leading man for me. You don’t have to overdo the characterization, either. Look at “Unstoppable,” also opening this weekend. That’s a good example of a film where they just quickly etch in character in an effort to humanize these people so their peril is more immediate. They don’t dwell on it, but it’s done with a deft enough touch that it’s effective. The biggest attempt they make here at grounding the characters is making Elaine pregnant. The rest of the time, it’s all about the situation, and it’s hard to create empathy during these situations when everything’s just sort of reactive.
The actual spectacle of the film is impressive, but oddly passive. Much of the movie consists of the lead characters watching things happen outside, avoiding them by hiding. More than anything, the film serves as a demo reel, and here’s where it has its greatest value. It seems to me that if you wanted to, you could create a modern Roger Corman pipeline by buying your own equipment and then hiring certain key creative players to work in-house on a permanent basis. The first person I’d hire, based on the look of “Skyline,” would be a director of photography to not only shoot the films and consult on how to best use the HD equipment, but to also work on ways to blend the FX and the live-action plates invisibly. Then I’d employ writers to turn out scenarios that could be batted around and developed over time, and Id only shoot once I was rabid about the material on the page. The guys who worked on this, including writers Joshua Cordes & Liam O’Donnell, are Hydraulx guys who are making their jump on this film to these new jobs, and O’Donnell has already moved on to the next Hydraulx film, “Offline.” There are some neat ideas in “Skyline,” and the film does something truly adventurous and weird in the last twenty minutes that doesn’t quite work, but that I give them credit for attempting. One thing that’s interesting about watching a film that was developed completely in-house by an FX team is that they try things here that they probably wouldn’t ever get a chance to try on any other film.
Let’s not parse words: I think “Skyline” ultimately fails as a movie. But more than anything, it reminds me of the original “TRON,” a movie where I don’t think the filmmakers are particularly good at the skills that make a film cohere into something vibrant and alive, but where we get a real glimpse at the future of genre filmmaking. There is a sincerity to “Skyline” that I find hard to dismiss completely. These are guys who seem to be aggressive about doing something fun and big and crazy, and if they can pull off a film that looks like this using these resources, then I think there is hope for original voices and original visions in the future. And I hope Hydraulx keeps at it, and that they push themselves. “Skyline” is a true B-movie, and not a very good one, but it suggests that they could make real magic with the right script. And to be honest, I’d rather see a spirited, sincere movie like this that doesn’t work than a “professional” giant-budget movie like “Gulliver’s Travels” or, to be more specific to the Strause Brothers, “Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem.”
“Skyline” opened in theaters everywhere today.