Other Worlds Austin 2017: BEYOND SKYLINE: Insanely Ambitious Sci-Fi

Frank Grillo & Iko Uwais Fist Fight Aliens, So…

Beyond Skyline had its Texas Premiere as the opening night film of Other Worlds Austin 2017. You can read my write up of the festival here. It is set for a Dec. 15th US release.

I don’t know what the budget was on writer/director Liam O’Donnell’s Beyond Skyline. I can guarantee it was much smaller than a Marvel film. I can also guarantee it was much smaller than than the size of O’Donnell’s ambition for the project. I mean this as a compliment. The concept of a film having a “reach beyond its grasp” is loaded, I know. But the idea very much applies to this guns-blazing sci-fi action film. While occasionally messy, overly ambitious, and bulging at its seams, Beyond Skyline is bursting with energy, resourcefulness, and glorious on screen imagery and violence.

O’Donnell was co-writer and producer of 2010’s Skyline. That film did little to implant itself in my memory. I recall it looking pretty slick for a lower-budget film, having a glowing blue beam that had something to do with its aliens, and… not much else. That said, my sense was that it made a bunch of money off of what was a very limited budget. I remember it being hailed as a sort of proto-Blumhouse model of a film which maximized its resources to create spectacle on a budget. That kind of thing is something I greatly admire as more and more dollars are poured into studio blockbusters but not a shred more imagination.

Beyond Skyline feels like a filmmaker playing with the tools of movie magic and actually having a good time in the process. In all honesty nothing about a Skyline sequel felt urgent, necessary, or even desirable in my mind. Then O’Donnell added Frank Grillo and Iko Uwais to the cast. You don’t do that unless you have some serious ideas about the action and physicality of your film. This was all it took to make Beyond Skyline a highly anticipated film for me. Granted, I’m an easy lay when it comes to these guys. I love them and the projects they tend to get involved with. So is Beyond Skyline just a bunch of earth-bound badasses stabbing aliens to death in hand to hand combat? I would have been okay with that. But no, it’s going for a lot more.

There is a real visceral, grounded quality to the hand to hand action of Beyond Skyline. But it’s also a sweeping sci-fi epic, and goes to all kinds of crazy places in that regard. Perhaps the most iconic element of Skyline was the blue light beam. Look into the light, and get sucked right up into the alien mothership, never to be seen or heard from again. Huge clouds of human beings being sucked into the sky is a cool visual, and an effective gag. This is the kind of alien invasion story where we’re outmatched in virtually every way. And these aliens have very unpleasant things in store for us. Beyond Skyline will show us exactly what kinds of body horror these aliens want to inflict upon us, and it’s just gloriously R-rated.

Essentially a father-son story, Grillo’s Mark character is a tough cop on leave after the loss of his wife. He picks up his son Trent (Jonny Weston) from the station after being arrested for some kind of criminal behavior. The strained father and son are en route on the subway when the alien attack begins. A small team of survivors battle from street to street in order to try and find a way to safety. From there things just get NUTS, with sequences inside the alien ships, globetrotting over to what I believe is supposed to be Thailand in the film, where we meet our (Indonesian) stars Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian. This mid-budget movie has the audacity to be a big sci-fi effects film loaded with both digital and practical creatures, weapons, spaceships… and a practical, physical action film. Throw some time shifting non-linear stuff in there for good measure, too. There’s brains being pulled out of skulls, intense birth sequences, alien implant weapons… it’s just flat out insanity. And it’s a great time at the movies.

I’m certain there will be many who don’t care for the film. The gore and sci-fi alone will turn off many. And it tries to cover too much ground. On top of being a father-son story, it’s also a ragtag group of survivors story, a John Connor-style rise of a resistance leader story, and a giant alien invasion story. It’s packed to the gills and only runs 105 minutes. It’s all well and good that some folks won’t appreciate any of this. But I do. I enjoy the ambition. I relish the glee with which O’Donnell expanded his sci-fi universe and used every tool in his kit from his digital effects background to shoot for the stars. It’s not some kind of pure home run that every last film fan should rush to go see. But it is more invigorating and visceral than the barrage of superhero movies being pumped into our eyeballs on the daily. And it’s less bloated too. By putting Grillo and Uwais in starring roles, Beyond Skyline takes advantage of the irreplaceable physical abilities of real human movie stars. Then it goes to the other extremes and designs giant space creatures and ships and weapons the likes of which we generally only see in mega-budget blockbusters. It pushes boundaries in the physical and the digital and shows that fun can be had in both realms, in the same movie, without breaking the bank.

I’m at the point where I’ll follow Frank Grillo and Iko Uwais virtually anywhere they want to take me. And if Skyline didn’t make Liam O’Donnell a name to watch out for, Beyond Skyline certainly did. A similarly low budget and ambitious film called Monsters led to a filmmaker named Gareth Edwards being tapped to direct Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I’d love to see O’Donnell getting the attention he deserves for Beyond Skyline. Of course, I’d rather that attention be an offer for an even higher budget to keep expanding this tale versus being whisked up into the risk-free franchise model that studios peddle.

For now, check out Beyond Skyline. Fret not over whether you’ve seen the first, or even whether you didn’t care for the first. Come for Frank Grillo and Iko Uwais stabbing aliens, stay for writer/director Liam O’Donnell playing like a kid in a candy shop.

And I’m Out.

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