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 ]) or Los Angeles (Skyline , Battle: LA .) 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.