Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Cult Movie Review: The Darkest Hour (2011)


The Darkest Hour (2011) is an “empty city” alien invasion movie.  And the element that most distinguishes the film is the nature of the particular empty city, namely Moscow.  The Darkest Hour takes its heroes to Red Square, Lenin Square and other incredible locations in the former Soviet Union, and that’s certainly a notable distinction for a genre film.  So often alien invasion productions center the action in America, usually New York (Independence Day [1996]]) or Los Angeles (Skyline [2010], Battle: LA [2010].)  Accordingly, The Darkest Hour deserves some hosannas for setting its familiar story in this unfamiliar and interesting environment.

But it’s the film’s all-too familiar story that creates the problem.  Frankly, there’s very little in The Darkest Hour you haven’t seen before.

Directed by Chris Gorak and produced by Timuk Bekmambetov, The Darkest Hour concerns two young American software designers – Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella) – as they unexpectedly contend with an alien invasion while on a business trip to Moscow.  The aliens in this case are glowing balls of golden energy that rain down from the night sky and are first mistaken for the Northern Lights.  The alien touch is instantly lethal, and human victims spontaneously combust in horrifying and gruesome detail. 

The aliens suck you in and then churn you out in a million pieces.

Sean and Ben manage to survive the devastating and global first strike along with a morally-suspect associate, Skyler (Joel Kinnaman) and two gorgeous female tourists, Natalie (Olivia Thirlby) and Anne (Rachael Taylor).  They do so by hiding in a night-club basement/store room for several days.  You might think that other residents of Moscow, and of other cities, would also think to hide in a basement for a time, but apparently not.

When the group finally emerges from the sanctuary, it finds an empty, devastated city, and the end of human supremacy on Earth. The tourists soon run across another fellow survivor, Sergei (Dato Bakhtadze), a crazy electrician “or plumber” who has created a microwave gun to destroy the aliens.  This weapon proves quite helpful as the group attempts to reach a nuclear submarine that is docked in a nearby river.

The idea of American citizens trapped on foreign soil during a world-changing event is a pretty good one, but The Darkest Hour does little with the notion.  Basically, Sean and Ben get their hands on a map and explore the city competently according to that helpful guide, with little fuss or muss.  And the Russians they meet, for the most part, obligingly speak English.  

So while the visuals of a foreign city are awesome (especially a shot of a ruined bridge, and a crashed plane in a mall interior), and I enjoyed seeing the feisty Russian freedom fighters strike back against the aliens (who are here on Earth to suck up our planet’s mineral wealth…), none of this material adds a whole lot to the movie, especially when it boasts some notable weak points.

The characters represent one primary weak point.  They are not especially well-distinguished or interesting.  Sean, Ben, Natalie and Anne (and later Vika) are all young, gorgeous and obviously indulged, but they don’t add much to the action.  It doesn’t help that the weak script, by John Spaihts doesn’t permit the characters to be particularly smart, particularly funny, particularly scared or even boast long memories. 

For instance, in one early scene, Ben and Sean learn that they can escape detection from the roaming aliens -- who are invisible in daylight -- by hiding underneath cars.   In a later scene -- when they are off to rescue the rogue Skyler -- all the characters apparently forget that they can hide under any of the dozen parked cars surrounding them as the aliens move in for the kill with force. 

I’m also baffled that survivors, namely Skylar, continue to feel safe when bearing conventional firearms.  Bullets are absolutely ineffectual against these amorphous, whirl-a-gig light-beings, as the movie shows us several times.  Even more to the point, the aliens seemingly consist of swirling, moving air and wind as well as light.  How would an average guy boast any confidence that he could even hit the thing, given that he can see through it, and that it is constantly shifting form?

Certainly, I appreciated what The Darkest Hour has to say about how mankind achieves his greatest ingenuity in the darkest hour (or “team work makes the dream work.”)  I also liked that the movie points out that other people, besides Americans, also love their countries and are willing to fight for it.  We talk about American Exceptionalism all the time, but this movie shows us that determination and true grit are universal human characteristics, not one confined to a single country.

Still, I wish the script had showcased a bit more ingenuity.  I don’t object to the fact that the aliens are largely invisible in the film, as some critics did.  After all, the alien was largely invisible in the first Predator (1987), and that film worked in spades.  Rather, it’s that the film doesn’t really tread believably into the rampant hopelessness of the central situation.  Nine-tenths of the human race is gone, alien monsters patrol the world and are systematically raping our planet, and yet by movie’s end – and in a ridiculous, unnecessary double coda – the human survivors (after one successful campaign…) seem positive that they’ll turn the tide, win the war and reclaim Earth. 

From what I’ve seen, this level of optimism isn’t exactly justified.  For one thing, making enough microwave guns to destroy the numerically-superior aliens isn’t going to be very easy. 

The false, Hollywood-styled happy-ending of The Darkest Hour reminded me of a film I liked better, A Vanishing on 7th Street (2010).  Sure, it had its own set of problems, but that empty city movie ended in a thematically-consistent bleak fashion.  Once the end came, there wasn’t any cheery Pollyanna talk.  There was no last minute miracle to save the human race.

I was also reminded of Attack the Block (2011), another alien invasion film of recent vintage.  It offered a happy ending, yes, but so distinguished its colorful characters in speech and action that you could accept their victory as both legitimate and possible, at least on a surface level.

While watching The Darkest Hour, I kept thinking there had to be more to the story than the film depicts.  That it was going to offer a cool twist at the end.  For example, I felt certain that the spontaneous-combustion alien monsters were but a mechanism of the real invaders, an alien tool deployed to “clean” Earth’s surface and make it habitable for another race.  In keeping with this theory, I was convinced the film’s ending would depict the arrival of the real Big Bad, and that then the real fight would commence. 

Nothing that clever or thoughtful happens in the film, though.  

The aliens – who look like angry, levitating octopodes once they stop glowing – don’t offer anything by way of surprise after we’ve witnessed the monsters violently pulping human bodies.   What you see is what you get.

There are probably at least ten alien invasion movies that are better and more believable than The Darkest Hour, and yet I can’t find it in my heart to truly work up any hate for this movie.   It isn’t that the film is egregiously bad, in other words, it’s just that it tracks along such thoroughly predictable paths that it can’t rouse much by way of terror, suspense or involvement. 

The Darkest Hour is more like the blandest one. 

9 comments:

  1. John,

    I disagree with your assessment that the characters “are not especially well-distinguished or interesting.” While I agree that the characters Sean and Ben, on the surface, are somewhat shallow, I think there is some growth in their characters - particularly Sean’s. I found many of the characters extremely likeable. Most of the Russian characters, which were played by Russian actors, were quite enjoyable to watch. My favorite was Boris, the leader of the Russian militia, who obviously was familiar with American cinema, as a lot of his English was spoken in idioms used in the movies. The electrical engineer and amateur inventor Sergei was an oddball, yet sympathetic character, who I really hated to see killed so quickly. Yes, the Russians do speak (conveniently) English, but they also speak in their native language to each other quite often in the film, lending sufficient credibility to their character for me.

    I think you are being overly critical of “the weak script, by John Spaihts” and I disagree that it “doesn’t permit the characters to be particularly smart, particularly funny, particularly scared or even boast long memories.” The reason Skyler picks up the gun in the film is not because he thinks it will be effective against the aliens – in fact, Ben reminds him of this when he picks the weapon up – but because it “feels good”, which I took to mean it gave him a small sense of security – if a false one. The characters do learn and remember things from their prior experiences with the aliens. Natalie in particular demonstrates this twice in the film. The first time is when they are in Boris’ apartment and Anne – who couldn’t get the cage door shut – uses a glass table to keep the alien invading the apartment from reading their electrical signature. In the final scene where she is separated from the rest of the group, Natalie hides in a bus for the same reason. There are many instances where the characters show fear and bravery both.

    I find it odd that you point out the lack of depth of character as a weak point of The Darkest Hour and then go on to say that Predator (1987) “worked in spades”, because the characters in Predator are all cartoonish and extremely one-dimensional. I like the film none-the-less, but I don’t see how you can like that film more than The Darkest Hour based on character alone. I do agree that the hidden alien gimmick works in both films – although we do see much more of the Predator at the end of that film than we do of the aliens in The Darkest Hour.

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  2. Personally, I liked the optimistic spin of the ending of the film. I don’t understand why a film has to end on a negative theme, just to be more realistic. You liked Attack the Block – which I also enjoyed – but the scale of that invasion was much smaller and therefor it was more believable that the characters in that film could defeat the aliens. However, you didn’t like The Darkest Hour because after 9/10ths of the humans are killed by the aliens you think that the survivors whom begin to fight back shouldn’t be hopeful after a fairly major victory? While it may have had more impact if we had actually seen said victory, we did see many smaller victories and I don’t think it too much of a leap of faith for our group to believe that the remaining humans could find a way to mass-produce the micro-wave guns or amass a larger army to fight back.

    Although I didn’t find The Darkest Hour to be as dramatic or compelling as some of my favorite alien invasion films, I doubt I could come up with “at least ten alien invasion movies that are better and more believable than The Darkest Hour”. I can be just as critical of lazy filmmaking as the next genre film fan, but I think in the case of The Darkest Hour, it is the critics of the film that are being lazy. If you didn’t like the film, as many didn’t, it is fair to say that the film didn’t work for you. I thought The Darkest Hour was engaging on many levels; and while it may not have been as deep or melodramatic as the subject seems to demand, I enjoyed it for what is was: escapist entertainment.

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  3. Thanks for that review, I'm currently conducting a post apocalyptic themed thing on my blog, I think this one would fit nicely in there amongst all the other films. I'm curious to watch it, it seems like light hearted entertainment, sometimes I'm in the mood for just that. Nice blog you got going on here and congrats on your recent anniversary!

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  4. This uninspired clunker earned a place on my worst of the year list. At least the entertainingly junky Skyline had some interesting monsters to look at and an ending that dared to be insane.

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  5. Hi Doc:

    I understand and appreciate your defense of the film. I'm glad you liked it. I don't agree with you, but folks of good conscience don't have to agree on everything.

    However, let's be clear: I didn't comment positively on the characters in Predator. I commented that overall the movie worked well. I was actually defending The Darkest Hour from critics who said it was cheap to have an impossible monster, in this instance. I was pointing out that Predator did it too, and nobody seemed to complain there. So let's be honest about what I actually said, in regards to Predator.

    The characters don't seem very different to me, except, I guess, by the color of their hair. How are Natalie and Anne really different? Sure, different actresses, but all we know about them is that they're in Moscow, right?

    I also stand by my criticism about the characters not having very long memories in the instance I mentioned. Why not hide under a car, since hundreds are available? True, at the end, Natalie hides on a bus, but it's kind of a mystery how she gets to that bus, quite far away from the submarine.

    I also find it bothersome that 9/10s of the human race is gone, and these survivors "lived" by hiding in a basement. Tell me that act would not have been mimicked by half the population in America. There's no compelling reason these characters survived. It's not like they were abundantly smart or clever.

    I would also quibble with your idea that humans won a major victory here. They killed three aliens out of...millions?

    They did so using a complicated, unwieldy weapon that can't be mass produced, and likely is not easy to replicate. It requires time, resources, and a place to work, not under siege.

    Ten better alien invasion movies:
    War of the Worlds (2005)
    Attack the Block (2010)
    They Live (1988)
    War of the Worlds (1953)
    The Thing (1982)
    Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
    Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1953)
    The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
    The Blob (1958)

    plus, arguably also better than The Darkest Hour if not great themselves:
    Independence Day (1996)
    Battle LA (2010)

    Warmest regards,
    John

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to reply to my mini-rant of your review. I appreciate that you take the time to reply to the comments your readers take the time to post. I am still having a hard time understanding why you and so many other reviewers of The Darkest Hour found the characters in the film so vanilla (my words – not yours). I must admit that I watched the film twice in a 48 hour period with two different people and maybe I picked up a few of the small character edifying moments that others didn’t. I admit: the character backstory details were minimal, but they were there. Still, I can see how some would find them dull or at least pedestrian.

      Sorry about my confusion on your point about Predator. I must have read more into your point about that film than you wrote. One of the reasons I avoid comparing one film to another – even within a specific subgenre – is that the comparisons are never exact – even with direct remakes or prequels like the recent The Thing (2011).

      Unfortunately, I agree with many of your quibbles with the practical aspects of the film; particularly why there weren’t more survivors in the city of Moscow. When I watch a film like this – if my emotions are tied into the moment enough – I tend to overlook these types of details. I will pick them over in my mind later, but if I liked a film, they’re not enough to ruin a film for me.

      Of your list of alien invasion films that are better than The Darkest Hour, I agree with War of the Worlds (2005), Attack the Block (2010), War of the Worlds (1953), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1953). The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is a brilliant sf film, but it is a precursor to an alien invasion and not about an invasion itself. The Blob (1958) was a single alien mass found on a crashed meteor, so I don’t think that qualifies ether. The Thing (1982) is also a single alien that has crashed on Earth and it is never inferred that it is a precursor to an invasion, but that its duplication and mimicking of humans is a mere survival trait. They Live is an invasion film, and though I adore Carpenter’s tribute to the B-Sci-films of the 50’s, I don’t think it is a very good film. Independence Day (1996) would be on my list of films better than The Darkest Hour – and while flawed as well – I just adore its visceral visual overindulgence. I liked Battle LA (2010), but I found the characters in this film even more dull and stereotypical than the ones in The Darkest Hour. One recent alien invasion film that I liked better than The Darkest Hour was Monsters (2010). This was a small scale POV character-driven story that also built a realistic world that was gradually being overrun by aliens.

      John, it is a pleasure to discuss genre films with someone such as yourself that clearly has a love for them as much as I do. Thank you for your time.

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    2. Doc:

      Thank you, my friend, for always providing such intelligent commentary on these films.

      We may not always agree totally on a particular movie, but I love the passion and energy you bring to the debate, and I ALWAYS feel your comments are valuable and interesting. You often make me re-think my own perspective (biases), so I love it when I see your name come up here with a comment. A lot of the time, I do agree with you. What I like about you, especially, is that you are open to things; open to looking at things in a different way. For me, that's one of the traits of a good critic, and one I try to embody myself. I see us as sharing that in common.

      I don't know anything about Monsters (2010), but I will look for it now, based on your recommendation. I think you are right about Day the Earth Stood Still not really being an invasion pic. I should have written in Invaders from Mars, either the 50s or 80s version, or maybe both. Those are more legitimate alien invasion films for sure.

      As much as my review of Darkest Hour is negative, I didn't flat out hate the film. There were parts that I liked, and I disagree with the widely-held belief that it 'cheaped out' by having invisible monsters. I felt it was duller and blander then it needed to be, and unnecessarily cheery going out, too, but I don't understand the level of hatred directed at the film by some. I mean, it didn't work for me, but I don't think it was ABSOLUTELY HORRIBLE (in all-caps!)

      Anyway, I thank you for replying to my comment, and for adding to the debate, like you always do.

      best,
      John

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  6. Hi FC: I've been reading your survey of apocalyptic films with great interest. You have an excellent blog, yourself, there! I love it. The Darkest Hour is light weight, for sure, which is, sometimes, just what the doctor ordered! Thanks for the congrats on my seventh blogging anniversary.

    Chadzilla: Uninspired clunker -- good description of The Darkest Hour, my friend. Yes, Skyline had the courage to be crazy in the end, which was kind of a redeeming quality. The Darkest Hour just sort of blandly motors along...


    All my best to you both,
    John

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  7. Not sure if you'd call it an invasion movie, but if we are doing top 10's, Quatermass and the Pit would have to be in there, wouldn't it?

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