Originally Posted December 27th, 2011
The Darkest Hour is a film recommendable to anyone looking to take their first crack at screenwriting, because it is, in so many ways, the result of writers hoping a cool concept will cover up their poor handling of every other aspect in storytelling. Although plenty of good movies have gotten away with a good idea hiding the weakness of mechanical nuts and bolts, The Darkest Hour consistently shows an amateur understanding of plot development, character depth, motivation, and everything in between. It buries any novelty in its premise with cliché, wooden dialogue and just plain stupidity.
The shortcomings of the script are apparent from word one. You've already lost me if the characters are introduced as being either so bland, or so obnoxious, that you think they're the prologue cannon fodder instead of the leads. When their iPhone App designed to help hot strangers stalk each other doesn't get the $10 million dollar investment they were promised in Russia, is that supposed to make them sympathetic? Not when they're inept enough to fly out to Moscow without an NDA (in the film's own parlance, "non-douchebag agreement"), and just accept that they have no legal recourse because, "it's Moscow."
Having had their dreams of being overnight millionaires tragically crushed, techie Ben (Max Minghella) and slacker-waiting-for-a-chance-to-prove-himself Sean (Emile Hirsch) take comfort in a club modelled after a Russian Standard ad (picking up a few fellow American gals along the way, of course), before the power goes out and a mysterious light pattern overtakes the Russian night sky. There's an out of focus orange aurora borealis shot as if on a completely different planet than the one the awed street dwellers are standing on, but as sparkly orbs of light descend from the sky, mild relief sets in, as we're finally getting to that nugget of promise from the trailers.
An alien invasion is by no means a very original plot, but the alien designs in The Darkest Hour — or lack thereof — are. Aside from a slight shimmer, the aliens are completely invisible, which is made all the more dangerous for the residents of Moscow when the extraterrestrials prove hostile and start stealing the city's electricity. Getting in close contact with one of these things turns people into bits of burnt newspaper, and the instant ash-ification of party-goers is enough to convince our heroes to lock themselves away in a restaurant supply room for a few days.
At this point, a few good ideas present themselves; the change in scenery alone earns The Darkest Hour some credit. There are only so many times you can see New York, L.A. and Chicago decimated before all such films start running together. A well-handled montage covering the few days the characters stay in isolation sets up a refreshing look at the after-effects of an alien invasion as opposed to the immediate ones. And despite how cheap it might sound, having an enemy that could literally be behind you at any moment sounds pretty terrifying.
Too bad when it comes to actually executing on these ideas, The Darkest Hour falls on its face repeatedly with blunt exposition and poor storytelling devices. The early alien encounters mostly exist to establish some rules about the invaders, which is made pretty apparent when characters spout a theory about the creatures only to have it conveniently proven in the exact same scene. Visually, the only Moscow you get to see comes from matte backgrounds and scene after scene of dull industrial back alleys that could use a good feather-dusting.
That the characters lack any personality is mostly forgivable given the dire circumstances, but that doesn't excuse their nonsensical motivations. How exactly would the U.S. embassy be the one safe zone amidst all this destruction? What does a militia group gain by protecting a group of random strangers? Why would you risk your life finding someone who understands a Russian radio signal when you're just as likely not to understand the translator? Granted, with an English-speaking population of around 5%, the Yank survivors practically win the lottery with the number of bilingual characters they encounter.
All of this would be thoroughly more bearable if the one cool thing The Darkest Hour brought to the table had been better developed. The transparency of the aliens is more threatening in theory than practice, as you know everyone is safe so long as we don't see a set-up for a shot of someone getting turned into dandruff, an effect that loses most of its impact by vaporization number four or five. As a means of giving spatial context, having the aliens set off electrical equipment around them is pretty clever but it means their presence is always loudly announced by car alarms and flickering lights. I feel nothing for these characters, the least you could do is make their demises unexpected in some way.
The film's back half is ridden with clichés, including: deus ex machina via military types, emotional speeches to convince people to do incredibly dumb things, deus ex via character reappearance, inconvenient weapon malfunctions, painfully obvious introduction of a plot device for completely unexplained use as a deus ex, and that's not even the half of it. It wasn't until the forced happy ending and sequel baiting moments before the credits that I just gave up and started revelling in The Darkest Hour's ineptitude. Look, we all think it's the easiest thing in the world to write a dumb action movie, but The Darkest Hour proves that even when we think they're at their worst, bad Hollywood blockbusters could be so, so much worse.
1 out of 5
Directed by Chris Gorak