Skyman is a compelling character study with a sci-fi bent that inventively inspects alien interactions on an intimate level.
One of the most memorable moments in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 sci-fi classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind occurs when 3-year-old Barry Guiler is alarmingly abducted by aliens midway through the film, which sends his single mother into a tailspin and serves as one of the movie’s most suspenseful storylines going forward. For the remainder of the film, audiences are left asking, “What’s happened to Barry? Can he be saved? And if he’s rescued, will he be the same?”.
It feels fitting to start a study of Skyman by making note of the influence of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as the two films share several similarly thought-provoking themes about our realistic reactions to otherworldly occurrences, and, in many ways, Skyman’s star, Carl (Michael Selle), resembles a grown-up Barry Guiler. Skyman’s story is centered around a soon-to-be 40-year-old Carl Merryweather’s continuing fixation on an ethereal alien encounter he experienced in the California desert 30 years prior, and it harrowingly hones in on how this one event forever altered his association with the world around him and imbued him with an undying urge to engage with these entities once more.
Though the comparison isn’t perfect (Carl was 10 when he first came into contact with aliens whereas Barry was 3, Carl was never actually “abducted” like Barry, etc.), it nonetheless makes for a fascinating frame of reference as one watches Skyman. While we are never able to witness how Barry dealt with his childhood crisis, the events of Skyman represent a bit of an unofficial “epilogue” to his previous predicaments, simply with Carl stepping in as his substitute. If you’ve ever wondered what Barry would have been like when he grew up, through Carl, we come to see that it seems as if his personality would parallel that of the protagonist of Close Encounters – Richard Dreyfuss’ offbeat, alien-obsessed Roy Neary.
Yes, Michael Selle convincingly channels Dreyfuss’ delirious disillusionment as the compulsive Carl, continuing this tale’s trend of paying tribute to Close Encounters, but he additionally adds an angle of captivating childlike compassion and curiosity to his performance; because of how young Carl was when he experienced his “encounter,” it makes sense that this situation may have “stunted” his mental and emotional growth in some capacity, and therefore, Carl comes across as eternally innocent and innocuous. Regardless, his obstinate obsession also causes him to reject real-world responsibilities and leaves him oblivious to countless social cues (partially attributable to his status on the spectrum as well), and Selle’s portrayal paints Carl as a complex character by balancing this determined doggedness alongside his aforementioned impassioned idealism. In broad terms, Carl may seem like a blend of Close Encounters’ Barry and Roy, but Selle brings his own peculiarities to the part to differentiate it from those depictions.
It would be simple for this story to exclusively illustrate Carl as an ignored but intuitively intelligent imagineer or to conversely devote its time describing him as a distracted and distressing danger to his friends and family (due to his “delusions”), but Skyman refuses to experiment with either extreme. Rather, the film finds the middle ground in Carl’s fanaticism, and it allows him the opportunity to be a fully flawed and fractured human being without judgment. This delicate decision makes Skyman a more impressive and intriguing investigation overall, as the audience is able to explore the effects of an alien encounter on one individual in-depth on their own instead of merely monitoring a main character who has already been marked as either “misunderstood” or “manic” without any shades of grey. Thanks to the movie’s refusal to classify Carl as either “right” or “wrong” or to affirm his actions as either “good” or “bad,” we receive a much more objective outline of his identity than we would have otherwise.
Much of this neutrality is made possible by the film’s “found footage” format, as offscreen “documentarians” capture Carl’s daily routines without ever inserting their own opinions into their observations. In addition, Skyman integrates insights from a wide range of individuals instead of solely relying on Carl’s own account of his experiences; we spend the lion’s share of the story with Carl, but the filmmakers wisely work in interviews with frightened family members, extraterrestrial experts, and residents of his former town to create a more comprehensive case study of Carl’s situation and cover this chronicle as completely as they can. Carl’s sister, Gina (played by Nicolette Sweeney), acts as the most prominent opposing perspective to Carl’s pursuits in the film, and Sweeney brings both warmth and worriment to the role, wishing to be empathetic to Carl’s emotions while also functioning as the film’s voice of reason when his avid alien obsessions start to affect those around him.
Although Skyman achieves a sense of realism in its “found footage” filming more often than not, some scenes do occasionally seem more “scripted” than others (especially as the film tries to pad out its final act prior to its chaotic conclusion); however, for the most part, there is an admirable authenticity to entire affair, and even when the illusion of naturalism wavers, audiences should remain riveted nevertheless. Skyman may not have the perpetual panic of director Daniel Myrick’s first feature, 1999’s breakout horror hit The Blair Witch Project, nor is its atmosphere as absorbing, but what the film lacks in tenacious tension it makes up for with compelling cerebral contemplation. The two tales share similar interests in exploring the “occult” and the “unknown,” but Skyman is meant to be an intellectual invigoration instead of a suspenseful sensory stimulation, and on that front, it succeeds.
Skyman strikingly starts with a quote from Arthur C. Clarke that states, “Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment is the fact that it is able to make us feel the full existential fear of this quote simply by inserting us into Carl’s own scattered state of mind; by the time the movie ends, many will find themselves unexpectedly speculating on the same startling subjects and searching the skies for solutions. Skyman may offer a definitive denouement to its own odyssey, but its ending efficiently encourages further examination, leaving behind a legacy that will linger with viewers for years to come.
Skyman will open in drive-in theaters on June 30th, and will be available to watch on Demand on July 7th.
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