A film review by Craig J. Koban January 2, 2012


2011, R, 90 mins.


Emile Hirsch:  Sean / Olivia Thirlby: Natalie / Rachael Taylor: Anne / Max Minghella: Ben /  Joel Kinnaman: Skyler


Directed by: Chris Gorak  / Written by: Jon Sapinhts


THE DARKEST HOUR is an alien invasion sci-fi thriller that can’t seem to do anything correctly with its fairly novel premise.  Worse yet, the film manages to take proven actors like Emile Hirsch and Olivia Thirlby and saddle them with horrendously one-note characters to play and even more inanely wooden dialogue to utter for 90 minutes.  Their relative talents are so mismatched with this lackluster material that it’s more frightening than the prospect of an otherworldly attack on our planet. 

I will concede this, though: the makers of the film have clearly made a decent effort to change things up a bit from the relative slew of other standard extra-terrestrial attack flicks.  Instead of America (the normal location for most movie alien invasions) THE DARKEST HOUR takes place in Moscow to lend some new and fresh scenic flavor.  That, and the aliens here at least don’t even come to Earth in the form of saucer shaped vessels.  They also don’t appear to have humanoid shapes at all; they descend in the night sky as glowing orbs of intensely yellow light.  When they land on the ground an energy shield that renders them completely invisible to their prey protects them.  Worse yet, if any organic thing gets too close to the beings they are instantly vaporized into ash.  So, yeah, kind of cool. 

Yet, why are films like this with such novel ideas and concepts so lamentably terrible when it comes to human characters and interactions?  Aside from the uniqueness of the film’s premise, there is not much in the way of even modest character development or story progression visible in THE DARKEST HOUR.  Instead of flesh and blood and relatable human beings that we can latch on to and care for, the film introduces us to stock character types that have little in the way of depth or distinct personalities.  Coordinated with that is the aggressively paint-by-numbers dialogue exchanges that they all have throughout, which have the damning side-effect of making everyone in the film feel about as genuine as a three dollar bill.  Sample exchanges involve obligatory lines like “don’t go that way!” or “they’re coming!” or “run!” or “we need to stick together to survive.”  Sigh.  Are all of these films written with the same program? 

Software developers Sean (a squandered Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella) arrive in Moscow and discover that their concept for a global traveler social app has been essentially stolen by an unscrupulous colleague, Skyler (Joel Kinnaman) leaving them feeling defeated and dejected without much hope for the future.  At a local bar later than night they meet a couple of cute girls, Natalie (Olivia Thirlby) and Anne (Rachel Taylor) who seem interested in the two downtrodden young men.  The screenplay and direction, unfortunately, do little in the way of generating tangible chemistry between all four attractive stars, but never mind.  What we do get is a woefully simplistic set of perfunctory movie meet-cutes.  Things get a bit awkward for the boys when they have a chance meeting with Skyler at the same establishment. 



It’s of no consequence, because strange and luminescent lights outside in the dark skies distract all the bar's patrons.  As soon as one of the lights descend and instantly disintegrates a local cop, the pub crowd begins fleeing for their lives as an apparent all-out alien invasion is launched.  For reasons of mind-numbing scripting convenience, Natalie, Anne, Sean, Ben, and Skyler all manage to escape the initial wave of humanity-killing chaos outside and secure themselves within the bar's basement kitchen area.  For days they all survive on canned food.  Hilariously, all of the girls still look near-perfect, as if they just stepped off a runway after going without showers, makeup, proper nourishment and much in the way of sleep for all those days.  The guys also have a peculiar lack of facial stubble as well considering the time that has past.  Go figure.

The five of them decide to venture out into the city streets, which are now virtually abandoned and covered with human ash.  Through a series of near fatal encounters with the aliens, the group is able to deduce that the creatures can be detected by the way they make any electrical object light up while in its presence (Sean comes up with a fairly ingenious way of wearing light bulbs around his neck as a warning device).  After having a brief meet and greet with some local survivors, the group settles in with a very crucial one, an electronics geek (Dato Bakhtadze) that has come up with an elaborate microwave gun that is able to momentarily disable the aliens and reveal their visible selves beyond their shields.  They also learn of a nuclear sub that is offering safe haven and transportation out of Moscow.  All that they have to do now is strap on some homemade alien-killing weapons, race through the Moscow streets, and make it to the sub in one piece for a chance for survival and passage back home. 

Part of the fun in this type of genre is trying to outguess the film as to which member of the survivors will perish at the hands of the monsters first, but the screenplay does an outright predictable job of disposing of them one by one.  Gee, I wonder if that backstabbing a-hole Skyler will go first?  Will the irritatingly fidgety and unpredictably hotheaded Rachel go next?  Seeing as Hirsch and Thirlby get top billing in the film, that leaves out poor Max Minghella as the odd man out.  At least the film has the balls to kill a cute dog that gets too inquisitive with one of the alien visitors.  I felt bad for that poor pooch.  As for the rest of the human halfwits?  I couldn’t care less about them. 

THE DARKEST HOUR was directed by Chris Gorak and produced by Russian-born Timur Bekmambetov, who previously directed WANTED with a real flare and outrageously stylish panache.  On a budget of just $40 million and using actual 3D cameras (no upconversion here), Gorak does create some memorable shots (an eerie moment in a completely depopulated Red Square gets a few chills, as do a few fine visual effects shots of a downed airplane in the middle of a burnt out shopping plaza).  The less-is-more approach of the film’s aesthetic is commendable, if not most likely attributable to the film’s low cost.  There are also a couple of spin-tingling moments to be had during instances of street lamps or room lights coming on signaling an otherworldly presence. 

Yet, THE DARKEST HOUR is mostly limp, lifeless, and bland when it comes to generating a sustained sensation of dread and unease: it’s simply never really a scary film to sit through. The film’s climatic and would-be enthralling finale is also so rushed and scattershot that you have to pinch and remind yourself to be excited.  Hirsch and Thirlby are forced to slum through the film’s parade of unintentionally hysterical developments and revelations and, at times, they look as if they’re about to break down and laugh. THE DARKEST HOUR was not so much released in theaters; it discretely invaded them across North America on Christmas Day, without any advance press screenings.  While watching it I was painfully reminded of another insipid alien invasion genre picture from late 2010, SKYLINE.  I gave that film a half a star; THE DARKEST HOUR is more than twice as good as that film, so my one and a half star grade for it here seems totally justified. 

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