skyline_smallSo, nobody likes Skyline. When I speak to the few people I know who’ve watched it, they’re universally negative about it. And my circle of friends isn’t unique in that respect; Rotten Tomatoes lists it with a whopping 15% approval rating. It made a few “Worst Of…” lists in 2010 when it was released. One review was even titled, “Skyline is the most pointless movie of the year.”

The problem is, everybody is looking at this movie wrong. This movie is actually a brilliant story, and what I think works against it is the fact that it asks the viewer to really challenge their pre-conceptions (which is, incidentally, one of the goals of any good science fiction story). This movie is a reversal of the “alien invasion” storyline that we’ve received over and over again from the Michael Bays and Roland Emmerichs of the world.

Alien Capabilities

Film Title: Skyline

First of all, let’s look at what these aliens are capable of doing.

  • They have a technology (the “blue light”) that can cause physiological and psychological changes at great distance, meaning that they have some understanding of our biology and how our brains work. However, while this light can control us to some extent, it’s got some weird side effects. Namely, Jarrod’s exposure to the blue light makes him physically stronger, which, let’s face it, is a pretty stupid side effect if the blue light is intended to be a weapon (or, at least, a tool of the invasion).
  • They manage to capture the bulk of humanity in just a matter of days. This means that their technology, tactics, organization – whatever you want to ascribe their success to – is overwhelmingly superior. After the first day, one of the characters says “I haven’t seen a soul all night.” Whatever they’re doing, they’re accomplishing it FAST. The shots towards the end of the movie suggest that the aliens pretty much have this wrapped up by day 3.
  • They have the capability to repair the damage from a nuclear weapon in a matter of minutes, using essentially nothing more than the scrap metals and other raw materials that just happen to be lying around their ship. Think about what that means, though. The materials lying around their ship are, essentially, L.A. So, human building materials, electronics, clothing, cars, plants…whatever we’ve got lying around, okay? Which means that their ships don’t require much in the way of specialized nuclear material, or anything particularly rare in order to function. If they had wanted resources, they clearly have the ability to simply take them at will, and nothing we can throw at them slows them down in any meaningful way. Plus, think about the amount of energy we’re talking about here. The first nuclear weapon produced something on the order of 67 terajoules of energy. Our modern weapons are significantly more powerful than that, but the aliens essentially have that much energy to spare even after being heavily damaged. So, whatever they’re doing here, looking for energy probably isn’t one of them.

 Oh, the Humanity…

Skyline3Okay, so we’ve established what the aliens have the ability to do. Let’s now take a look at what they actually DID. “What about the attack and all those poor dead people?”, I hear you asking. First, let’s look at the “attack”. The blue light effect allows the aliens to grab thousands if not millions of people, and allows them to do so non-violently. The power and water don’t shut off until day 2, which means that the aliens aren’t specifically attacking infrastructure (it’s probably just a lack of people working that causes the power to fail). The aliens seem to be engaged in a search for all humans, even those who are decidedly non-combatants (e.g. the elderly next-door neighbor). This search seems to be pretty comprehensive, in that they’re actively searching all the different rooms of the hotel. Think about that. Here you are on day one of your “invasion”, and you’re sending troops to look inside apartment buildings for non-combatants? That makes no sense at all, unless… this isn’t an invasion. More on that later.

Okay, sure, the aliens are also definitely collecting human brains – but why? Now, one of the theories I’ve heard tossed around is that the aliens are stealing human brains to power their weapons of war. This doesn’t make sense for a number of reasons. First is just a tactical consideration – if you power your weapons on the bodies of your enemies, then what happens when you’ve wiped most of them out? The resistance (such as it might be) would just have to wait for your supply of brains to run low. Doesn’t make any sense. Second, any culture with the ability to recover fully from a nuclear explosion in minutes doesn’t need the relatively minor energy or processing power produced by a single human brain. Finally, towards the end, Elaine buries an axe right in the brain being held by one of the alien hunter-seekers. However, this doesn’t knock the thing out of commission, just temporarily slows it. Which means that, whatever the brains are doing in these machines, providing power isn’t it. More on this later as well.

Second, how many people do we actually see die in this movie? Denise’s death was accidental, as she was just stepped on as one of the machines walked by the garage exit. It’s clear from the reaction of the machine that it wasn’t really expecting to step on the car. The hotel administrator kills himself in a gas explosion. The woman in the garage, the next-door neighbor, and Terry are “grabbed”, with no suggestion that this grabbing process is itself lethal. In fact, given that the man in the garage initially survives his grab suggest that being grabbed by the aliens doesn’t kill you. At the end of the movie, when Elaine is moved to the pregnancy room (more on this later), she moves through a biological tube that, while gross, suggests that the people grabbed by the machines aren’t killed out of hand, but rather delivered back to a ship somewhere.  The tubes don’t kill you. Candice gets grabbed, and then blown up by an Army bazooka, so that one’s on us.

Speaking of the Army, the military deaths in the movie all occur after the soldiers have been firing on the aliens repeatedly. One jeep is destroyed as it chases a machine through the city streets, repeatedly firing upon it. A helicopter is initially grabbed by one of the aliens, but it’s the soldiers who continue firing that eventually cause the alien to fall and take the helicopter down with it. Two soldiers are eventually knocked over a balcony after repeatedly firing upon one alien. The big air counterattack involves drones, you’ll note (those aircraft that look like stealth bombers appear to be pulling too many G’s for them to have a human pilot on board, and stealth drones are a thing). One aircraft is destroyed later on after repeatedly firing on another alien machine.

Here’s the point: in no case that I can tell did the aliens in this movie ever fire the first *lethal* shot. They seek to capture, yes, but most of the deaths in the movie can be attributed to the humans, accidents, or, eventually, self-defense. Even when Jarrod is going to town with an axe on one of the hunter-seekers, that machine strikes his leg – it tries to incapacitate, rather than kill, even when it’s being attacked with potentially lethal force.

Here’s how it could have happened…

skyline4My theory about this what this movie actually describes is below. However, before we get to that, there is another possibility I’d like to explore. I’ll call this the “aliens be alien” theory. The logic goes like this. The aliens don’t do things that we expect because they’re alien. They have a different history, culture, way of thinking, biology, psychology, religion, etc. All this adds up to the fact that we have no idea why they’re doing what they’re doing. Maybe they spare the pregnant women for religious or scientific reasons. We simply don’t know, and never will.

My issue with this is that it basically reduces the movie to meaninglessness. If we can’t understand the aliens’ motivations, and aren’t provided with the standard “movie scientist theorizing key plot points” scene, then the movie is basically about nothing. There’s no point or purpose or greater message here, which, while certainly possible (no one said every filmmaker had to have a “vision”), is certainly less satisfying. I think that’s particularly the case for science fiction. Science fiction, at least as I’ve come to think of it, should test the viewer. It’s one of the few genres that truly lets the writer do anything they want, which means that they can challenge conventions, ignore taboos, and essentially force the viewer to look at the world, or themselves, or an idea in a novel way.

But here’s what really happened…


So, having said that, what do I think this movie is about? The trick to understanding this film lies, I think, in one of the lines uttered the morning after the first wave of humans get sucked up into the ships.

“It’s calm.”

It’s calm. Movies about aliens, even the comedies, always involve an element of panic. The state, the police, the parents, everyone – somewhere in almost every alien movie is somebody freaking the fuck out because, you know, aliens. So, let’s take this as a premise: Any alien encounter would lead to widespread panic on Earth, regardless of its intention.

And let’s review what we know so far:

  • The aliens are so much more ridiculously powerful than us that they could simply take what they wanted without having to kill us.
  • The aliens don’t seem to be trying to kill people.
  • The aliens are looking for every human, not just those that pose a danger to them.
  • The aliens are taking brains, but not to use as “batteries”.
  • The aliens are keeping the pregnant women alive. (This one is key.)
  • The aliens know (as discussed above) that any attempted contact would cause us to flip out.

So, what do I think is going on? It’s a rescue mission.

Imagine you’re an incredibly advanced, space-faring civilization, and you see this little backwards, slightly civilized culture about to be wiped out. The why doesn’t really matter – asteroid, gamma ray burst, solar instability. The point is, these poor humans are fucked. You respect life (think about the pregnancy room), and want to do what you can to save them. However, the logistics are a nightmare. 6 billion (and change) alien life forms – all of which would need food, water, the right mixture of oxygen and nitrogen, certain wavelengths of light, specialized drugs and equipment, a certain degree of physical space. And even if you have the ships to pick up 6+ billion humans, and the stuff they’d need, what then? Do you have another planet ready for them? How will you feed them? Where will you grow food for 6 billion souls? Where will you put their shit? Even if the aliens have the technical capacity to solve these problems (and we’ve no guarantee of that), that doesn’t mean they’d have the time to put all this in place. Who knows how far away their base of operations is, or how fast their ships travel, or when the disaster will strike?

So, what do you do? You copy as many of them as you can.

Stick with me on this. Our own (human) futurists think that the first person’s brain could be copied within the next century, if not sooner (see here and here). This means that human beings will be living eternally inside of computers probably before we’ve so much as sent a probe to our nearest star. It’s not unlikely that an incredibly advanced race would have this capability as well. Hell, it might even be their answer to the speed of light limitation – send out a ship loaded with computer consciousnesses, and wake them up when you arrive. Estimates of the capacity of the human brain run from 1 – 2.5 petabytes, though fully mapping a human brain could take more. The point is, these numbers aren’t impossible. Say each human being required 20 petabytes; you could copy everyone in the world with roughly 130 billion petabytes, or 130 yottabytes (which, for comparison, you could store by turning most of Alaska into a huge data center using 1TB drives, which would be useful since it’s already self-cooling). And that’s with today’s level of technology.

So, given that, the blue light is basically the non-violent equivalent of “Please move towards the exits.” It is the most humane evacuation method for the most people, but admittedly terrifying for the remainder. This also explains parts of the movie that don’t make sense otherwise: the brain-pulling, the compatibility between our brains and their systems, and the pregnancy room. Pulling brains make sense because copying a human being isn’t like transferring files on a USB. The brain carries information in three dimensions (through the manner of connections between neurons, which aren’t all neatly laid out on a flat computer chip), which means that you would need a highly invasive three dimensional scan in order to accurately copy a human brain. Easiest way to do that? Suck ’em out of the head.

So those final scenes, where Jarrod’s brain suddenly gains the capability to control one of their machines? This makes (more) sense if the aliens have configured their systems to interface with human brains. The next question then is, why are the aliens putting these brains into machines in the final scenes anyway? I think the answer to that is efficiency. Obviously the hunter-seeker type machines are designed to copy as many brains as possible (hence the ejecting/inserting brain scene in the parking garage). But there’s another immediate utility for these brains – information. If I pull Bob’s brain and copy it, I should then be able to use the information contained in that brain (i.e. his memories) to help provide me with situational awareness that I can use to find additional humans. So, the aliens are putting these brains into the machines in order to help them find other holdouts. Because the reality is that, while they’ve developed a system that will allow them to capture the bulk of humanity in days, the longer people go un-captured, the more likely they will remain that way. And remember, these folks have one eye on the clock.

Finally, the pregnancy room. Why are the aliens saving all the pregnant women? Seriously, if the aliens are just running around and murdering humanity, then what’s the point of checking the women first and not ripping their brains out if they’re pregnant? It’s because they’re trying to save EVERY human (to the extreme that they’re even saving those folks who are only weeks pregnant, like our heroine, Elaine). Think about that commitment. At any given time on Earth, there’s roughly 100 million pregnant women (based on ~370k births per day, plus an average gestational period of about 270 days). So, these aliens are going to keep alive millions of women long enough for them to give birth, so that they can copy the mothers and the babies. The pregnancy room only makes sense if you see the aliens as trying to save every human life possible. Otherwise, what’s the point?

This is why I think Skyline is underappreciated. Yes, the acting is “meh”, and you don’t really care about the characters. But it’s not just disaster-porn; it’s an attempt to imagine what a rescue would look like from the point of view of someone who didn’t even know they needed rescuing. Like any good sci-fi, it challenges your assumptions and asks you to let go of your pre-conceived notions. So, next time you watch, cheer on the aliens. They’re doing us a solid.


James Lackey has lived in Hampton for almost his entire life because he enjoys the lack of big city cultural experiences coupled with the absence of small town charm.  He went to William and Mary for a Computer Science degree (and left with a Philosophy one), before going back to school in 2007 to get his Master’s in Public Administration.  He currently works at the Government Accountability Office.  In his spare time, he helps raise his three daughters (Ruby, Inara, and Maeven), makes fun of bad movies, and tries not to melt circuit boards.