In theory, the unknown and unseen is scary. In practice, you kind of need to see something — eerie eyes, a gnashing mouth, clutching claws. Case in point: which alien life form is more badass; The Blob, or the Alien bitch?
In The Darkest Hour, the ubiquitous UFO's are made up of lightning-like chains of energy, which incinerate the human body into cinders upon contact. Although not entirely successful in their endeavor, the filmmakers wisely up the ante as the plot trudges along, showing us just a little more of the creatures as they gain strength with each subsequent charge. While the creatures begin to take shape, the story never really does. Playing out like a better-acted, bigger-budgeted SyFy original, The Darkest Hour is a decent enough time-waster. It's not the next District 9 (produced by Timur Bekmambetov, who also produces here) but I liked it.
A big puzzle piece of the likeability is due to the casting and characters. Carefree Sean (Emile Hirsh, Milk) and worrywart Ben (Max Minghella, The Social Network), who are friends and colleagues, travel to Moscow to pitch their cool software to some bigwigs, but they arrive only to find another entrepreneur, haughty Skyler (Joel Kinnaman, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), has stolen their idea with no regrets. A day late and a ruble short, the young men head to the nearest bar to drown their sorrows in some Stoli. Once again, Skyler's beaten them there — but, our boys score a win when they meet two beautiful girls, Natalie (Olivia Thirlby, Being Flynn) and Anne (Rachael Taylor, Shutter). Of course, then it's the ultimate cock-block when evil aliens show up and start reducing humans to ashtray leavings left and right, dead or red.
So that happens. Then we follow our brave band of survivors through the ravaged city streets of Moscow, into its tenements, and even through Romero territory (yep: a mall… with mannequins!). They meet a couple of new peeps along the way, lose one or two slow-pokes in highly-charged chases, and… rinse, repeat. There isn't much that can be done with the post-apocalyptic formula: disaster strikes, our hero(es) set forth for home (or whatever passes for Shang-ri-la), indulge in some in-fighting, are beset with dangerous challenges, and finally either: find hope (The Road), or shoot everyone in the car (The Mist).
Now, as I said: the characters are likeable. But is that what we really need, in order to care? To invest on some emotional or visceral level? Most post-apocalyptic thrillers and disaster movies that wind up standing the test of time are those featuring faces that've clocked a few hours. There's no Charlton "Soylent Green" Heston here… no Julianne "Children of Men" …and certainly no Steve "Towering Inferno" McQueen. The boyish faces and supermodel looks are fine, but ultimately fallow. We know going in, nobody's going to get their hair mussed, let alone get ugly when the chips are down.
The Darkest Hour is directed by Chris Gorak, whose first (and only other) movie, Right At Your Door, is based on similar themes. In his "day job" as an art director (Fight Club, Minority Report) and production designer (Blade: Trinity, Lords of Dogtown [which also starred Hirsch]), Gorak shows more range. His eye for the unusual opens nicely in The Darkest Hour — my favorite little flourish is the housecat belonging to a paranoid inventor who, not unlike the tinfoil hat wearing kiddies in Signs, is draped in electricity-repellent wiring of some kind. Bigger set-pieces, like landmarks The Kremlin and Moscow State University, are noteworthy It's the extra touches of care and concern that puts this movie over others of its ilk.
But only just. In the end, it's nothing special… however, it's everything entertaining and if that's all you need to get you through the night: here you go.
The DVD and Blu-ray (there's also a 3D version, which I didn't see) offer several extras for discerning and delving fans. There's a director's commentary, plus a scripted short film called Survivors (focusing on an entirely different set of characters, and which I actually preferred to the feature! I want to see *this* movie). There's your standard Making-of featurette (the vis-effects guys talk about agonizing over how much of the monster to show; the actors complain affably about having to react to "tennis balls strapped to c-stands"), and then there are the extended and deleted scenes for the actors' friends and family (Anne and Natalie at the Airport, Skyler Brags to Tess, Ben and Vika Talk About Their Siblings, A Toast to the Fallen Comrades, and Natalie and Sean Talk About Anne and Ben).
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Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson