The Darkest Hour (2011)
THE DIRECTOR Chris Gorak
THE ACTORS Emile Hirsch (Sean), Olivia Thrilby (Natalie), Max Minghella (Ben), Rachael Taylor (Anne), Veronika Vernadskaya (Vika), Dato Bakhtadze (Sergei), Yuriy Kutsenko (Matvei)
THE CAUSE Alien Invasion
THE STORY "Mr. Sergei thinks they're made up of wave energy. That's why they're invisible to us. He says they microwaved Moscow. Burned everything out." - Vika
"We're mineral rich. Copper, nickel, metals that conduct electricity. It must be food to them." - Matvei
THE RUNDOWN I don't remember how The Darkest Hour was received when it came out in 2011, but its box office returns (approximately one-tenth of its budget on opening weekend) speak volumes for how interested people were to see it. In truth the only reason I own a copy of this movie at all is because I began snagging any post-apocalyptic movies I could find way back in 2012 in hopes of doing something very much like this column one day. The Darkest Hour put itself out there and the world said, "Who are you again? Oh right, the movie where the dog blows up in the trailer. Nah, I'm good."
The Darkest Hour concerns two young business moguls who travel to Moscow to promote the expansion of their app which tells young people where the hottest clubs and bars within any given city are located. They arrive for their meeting only to find that another man has stolen their idea. Dejected they head to a club to drink away their misery when the power goes out and glowing orbs begin descending from the sky.
They soon find that the orbs, actually semi-invisible aliens, are malevolent and turn people to ashes when they touch them. A small group hides in a storage room for a few days before they run out of food and decide to go back into the outside world and find help. They discover that the aliens cause anything electrical to activate when they are near but that they can't see through glass and search desperately for a way to go home. I wish I could spice it up a bit more, but that's the plot.
Our characters are only barely able to be called such. Emile Hirsch plays Sean, the goofy fuck-up sidekick character who strangely has the most proactive role in the plot and Max Minghella plays Ben; a human dial tone who most easily fits the "hero" slot. I'll talk more about those two in the spoilers section of the review. Olivia Thrilby play Natalie the ersatz heroine whose key character beats are thinking everyone should stick together and having a mom back home who she is worried about. Rachael Taylor plays Anne the Australian photographer who, if this were a zombie movie would get bitten and not tell anyone.
Finally, rounding out the cast is Joel Kinnaman as the slimy thieving Swedish entrepreneur Skyler. I have no idea why they put an actor this good in a role this thankless but he's here. Joel Kinnaman is great and even though I confuse him and Joe Anderson, the other Aryan character actor of European descent who gets thankless roles in everything, it's always nice to see him turn up. Skyler seems like he'll be an important part in the story, he's a scum bag who is clearly going to betray our heroes in some way, right? Nope, he just whines a bunch and then inconsequentially dies about halfway through the movie. I have no idea why he's in as much of the movie as he is considering his only contribution to the plot is that he can speak Russian and read Cyrillic, which helps our characters maybe twice since seemingly everyone in Moscow speaks perfect English. And since nobody in this movie speaks human words, Kinnaman's only lasting contribution to the film is his over-the-top reaction faces (see this review's header image on the main page.)
Now I mentioned the dialogue above so allow me to elaborate. People in this movie do not speak like actual people, it is as though this movie was written by an algorithm which simply sampled dialogue from a series of insipid movies for 20-somethings. Allow me to show some actual dialogue from The Darkest Hour:
"I bet they sense our bio-electromagnetic shit."
"That almost makes sense."
"How did you come up with that?"
"I don't know, Shark Week."
"My money's on they see our electric pulses and the glass blinded it."
"It's an electric insulator."
Shine on you beautiful diamond. The end result is that though our characters talk quite a lot, they never actually say anything. And the annoying thing about this effect is that the actors, bless them for being good at their jobs, sell the concept that the words anybody is saying are deeply meaningful or even profound. The reality is you could replace the vocal track for this movie with the sound of geese honking and get roughly the same effect. All of the expository dialogue is rendered worthless since the movie does a great job of communicating all valuable information regarding the aliens and how they work to us in the visual medium and all the non-expository dialogue is nonsense.
I know I'm being harsh on this movie but the director Chris Gorak wrote and directed the great little indie-apocalypse drama Right at Your Door and while it's not a great movie, it's a good movie. Gorak did not write this movie and I can't speak to the behind the scenes politics that may or may not have impeded his creative process but this just feels lazy from a creative standpoint. Right at Your Door did a lot with very little and The Darkest Hour does so very little with a whole lot.
Honestly, the most confounding thing about this movie is that it's actually pretty good. I enjoy this movie but at the same time I hate it and the feelings exist independently of each other much to my confusion. Fortunately I don't do scores on these reviews because I've seen this movie three times now and I'm still not sure if I like it.
The actors all manage to give some personality to their flat characters. The visual aspect of the movie is quite good considering that the effects department had very little to work with. The set-up is good even if the movie unfortunately does nothing with it. The cinematography keeps this looking like a real movie instead of the indie direct-to-video trash it is at heart. They go to all the usual Moscow locations (courtesy of producer Timur Bekmambetov) and the club in which the initial alien assault feels like one of those clubs that only exists in movies but the production design on post-apocalyptic Moscow is wonderfully eerie in darkness or daylight and the Faraday Cage apartment the characters run into toward the end of the second act is wonderfully designed. Similarly all the homebrew alien fighting technology like the Russians' electricity dispersing armor (and armored horse) and the Ghostbusters-esque microwave gun that the resistance uses to fight back are a welcome bit of quirk to a movie that doesn't have a whole lot to make it feel distinct.
Less wonderful is the design of the monsters. This is completely a spoiler but there's no joy to seeing what the creatures are revealed to look like. The CG isn't even what I would call bad, just unimaginative (like the rest of the movie.) Wisely the aliens aren't shown often or clearly but I managed to snag a semi-clear screenshot of the best look we get.
This whole section is spoiler territory so skip below the picture of the cyberpunk horse if you don't want to know. On my initial viewing of this movie way back when it first came out on DVD I was impressed with the way that Sean (Emile Hirsch), the interesting/annoying sidekick became the hero and Ben (Max Minghella) the absolutely dull good guy died out of nowhere. On this viewing I don't know why I was surprised before. Even just ignoring that Emile Hirsch has name recognition and Max Minghella doesn't, Sean is in control of the situation from the beginning. Every big decision is made by Sean from the moment the aliens first strike and Ben's contribution is voicing disagreement on a few occasions. Sean even has a save the cat moment where he grabs the obviously dying bartender and helps him into the cellar where everyone's hiding even though it involves putting himself at risk for a few more seconds. They couldn't have tried harder to make Sean the hero from the get-go.
Even though Hirsch's rise to the hero slot is a lot more telegraphed than I recall, I'm fine with it. Hirsch is a good leading man and hasn't gotten the credit he deserves (likely because the movies he stars in get critically panned and make very little money.) He takes a character that by design is meant to be annoying and makes him a charming protagonist.
The movie finally gets good when Hirsch earnestly becomes the hero, which is actually a little before Ben dies when they leave the Faraday Cage apartment with the microwave gun and run into the Russian resistance. The movie finally seems to begin at the one hour mark meaning that the entire meat of the film takes place in the remaining 23 minutes. And those 23 minutes are legitimately good even though they're rushed and the dialogue is still bad, they're fairly goofy but goofy is still preferable to the white noise of the rest of the movie.
I've torn this movie down but in all honesty I still rather enjoy watching it. It's not a good movie but it's not worthy of its abysmal ratings on various movie aggregate review websites and I'd say that calling it watchable would be an understatement. Spielberg's War of the Worlds would be a go-to comparison but I'd actually put it more in company with the Chilean earthquake film Aftershock or the star-studded Vanishing on 7th Street. It's not as violent or nihilistic as the former or as pointless and spectacularly boring as the latter but there is a certain aesthetic that all three share.
You'll like The Darkest Hour more than you think you will, but you still won't care about it at all.
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