(by Dustin Putman
When Summit Entertainment—the studio that proudly screened "Breaking Dawn Part 1"—announced that their Christmas tentpole, the alien-invasion thriller "The Darkest Hour," would be opening cold, it was a tell-tale sign that something had gone horribly wrong. The trailer appeared perfectly acceptable, even creepy, and its Russia setting at least set it apart from overdone NYC/LA disaster-movie locations. Looks can be deceiving, though, especially when it comes to cinematic extraterrestrial take-overs. Earlier in the year, a haunting, visually epic trailer for "Battle: Los Angeles" was cooked up, but what worked in an edited collection of lightning-fast clips scored to a great piece of music was very nearly irredeemable in its embarrassingly incoherent finished form. "The Darkest Hour" isn't much better, its efficient effects work and the thankless participation of some good young actors who should have known better the only indicators that this is a big-budget production. Everything else screams of amateurishness, the most simple of shots so flatly and shoddily filmed that it often seems to be a direct-to-video knock-off. Based on the evidence here, no one would be able to guess that director Chris Gorak previously helmed 2007's acclaimed apocalyptic indie "Right at Your Door." Maybe the extra money stole his soul. Article continues below
Free-spirited Sean (Emile Hirsch) and his straight-laced friend Ben (Max Minghella) have just traveled to Moscow to pitch their new social networking site, but when they arrive they discover that they've been sold out by their Russian partner Skyler (Joel Kinnaman). Drinking their troubles away at a local nightclub, Sean and Ben have no sooner met fellow vacationing Americans Natalie (Olivia Thirlby) and Aussie-accented Anne (Rachael Taylor) when the power suddenly goes out. Upon making their way outside, they witness mysterious balls of energy falling from the sky that waste no time in obliterating every person they touch. The group seek shelter in a storage room for four days until food runs out and they decide to make a getaway to the U.S. Embassy. Once outside again, they are made privy to the full scope of destruction around them, the population wiped almost completely out. With a deadly pursuer who is more or less invisible until it strikes, the gang are at a stark disadvantage. When their run-in with scientist Sergei (Dato Bakhtadze), who may have the answer to defeating the aliens, backfires, word of a nuclear submarine preparing to take off from the Moscow River may be their final shot at survival.
"The Darkest Hour" was written by Jon Spaihts, though the idea that something so threadbare was written at all is a hard pill to swallow. The four lead characters are a step away from being total ciphers, practically all there is to learn about them already mentioned in the above synopsis. It's fortuitous that they can be physically told apart, because that's the only thing separating them from being interchangeable. At 89 minutes, director Chris Gorak does not worry himself with getting-to-know-you chit-chat, jumping into the one-note protagonists' conflict almost immediately and then instructing the actors to run around while darting their heads this way and that in understandably paranoid fear. When they do open their mouths, it's usually for naught. "I just want us to make smart choices," says one of them, then proceeds to throw himself and the others in direct harm's way. "Be careful! They're out here!" warns another, as if their friends weren't already keenly aware that otherworldly electromagnetic monsters are prowling the planet. Oh, and who couldn't love this charming little bon mot: "They came here with a plan. What's ours?" While they decide on that, at no point is it attempted to explain what these aliens are or what their goal is. Underdeveloped in the extreme, the plot has nowhere to go and nothing to explore on a deeper level. It's not effectively enigmatic, either; it's just plain sloppy.
Emile Hirsch (2008's "Milk") has displayed an impressive range and dedication to his craft for someone still early in his career, and Olivia Thirlby (2011's "No Strings Attached") has been a charismatic, earthy standout in several past films that showed off what she was capable of. How these two talents—and, for that matter, Max Minghella (2010's "The Social Network") and Rachael Taylor (2008's "Shutter")—came to sign on for a junky, leaden project such as this is mind-boggling. Did they not read the screenplay, or did they agree to star without the script, solely based on empty promises from director Chris Gorak that he wouldn't make them look bad? Whatever the case may be, the version showing up in theaters is like a snuff film, the camera planted on the actors as they desperately flap their arms to keep from drowning in the rotten, swampy cesspool they've found themselves in. None of them are particularly good, either, because the film doesn't give them the chance to do anything but run and duck. Rare instances of emotional content are treated like petty, gnat-like bothers and quickly skimmed over for another scene of indifferently-portrayed destruction.
Turning human characters into a swirl of ash within seconds is a conceit that has been done before (2005's "War of the Worlds," for example), but the special effects that bring this to life while sending people (and an unlucky dog) to their deaths is as neat as it is fleetingly sobering. The Russian locale is also well-used since it was obviously filmed on the real city streets and bridges of Moscow, landmarks popping up frequently in the immediate backgrounds. This is all that is worth positively noting in "The Darkest Hour," a jumble of cringe-inducing writing and all-around idiocy. It's best to not even get into the alien POV shots, which are brought up and then dropped moments later for no reason, or the horseback-riding soldiers who waltz into the third act to impart faux dime-store wisdom to the still-ticking heroes. In lieu of bringing the story to any detectable conclusion, the film comes to a halt as it approaches 90 minutes and cuts to the end credits sans fanfare. "The Darkest Hour" would be a laughing stock of inanity were it not so thoroughly unsatisfying. After this debacle and "Battle: Los Angeles," 2010's reviled "Skyline" is fast becoming a beacon of visionary wonder in comparison.