As 2011 drew to a close, essays about the death of celluloid popped up, the usual proclamations and predictions about when the analog holdouts would decide (or be forced) to make the digital switch. Celluloid devotees may be cheered by The Darkest Hour, a sci-fi thriller released on Christmas without advance press screenings. It does a great job of making digital filmmaking look just as slick and advanced as it did in 1998.
This alien-invasion picture was shot on location in Moscow and Berlin, but its digital cinematography has a sheen of cheapness that makes the whole thing appear green-screened. The movie cost an economical $30 million to make. It looks like an even more economical three million.
The movie opens with smirky Sean (Emile Hirsch) and levelheaded Ben (Max Minghella) arriving in Moscow to make a deal with Russian businessmen to finance their social media travel site. But they soon find that their contact, the nefarious Skyler (Joel Kinnaman) (who is Swedish, but never mind) has decided to steal their idea instead (Skyler greets them by asking if they’ve received his email, the one that said, “Cancel those plane tickets, we’ve decided to steal your idea instead”). The boys drown their sorrows at a Russian club so cool that no one notices how much it looks like an over-lit soundstage. Here they meet fellow English speakers Natalie (Olivia Thirlby) and Anne (Rachael Taylor). Then invisible aliens arrive and kill everyone while our heroes hide in a basement.
When the survivors emerge to wander the ravaged streets of Moscow, streaks of golden lightning wind around the city streets and into buildings, grabbing hold of people and incinerating them in seconds. Electricity flares up as the aliens approach, so brightened bulbs come to serve as warning signs for potential victims, as well as cuing the rest of us that the film won’t be showing actual aliens.
As obviously cost-saving as it may be, the invisible alien angle has potential for clever, stripped-down B-movie thrills. But The Darkest Hour is not clever. Eventually, the humans conclude that the aliens are sapping earth of electricity-conducting minerals, which makes their mass slaughter of its inhabitants more practical terrain-clearing than a chilling master plan. The aliens are neither unfathomable nor especially horrific, and the humans are resolutely un-resourceful. They only begin to fight back when they stumble upon a microwave gun late in the movie.
Thus the movie sets up a numbing pattern: lights glow, signaling aliens afoot, then a dash of lightning turns a person to dust (the speed of the disintegration is not surprising, as the characters are all paper thin). The deaths have the predictability and monotony of a slasher movie.
That said, many slasher movies are renowned for their style or at least a cursory suspense. The Darkest Hour has a flabbergasting lack of either. This despite the fact that director Chris Gorak actually has an illustrious previous career as an art director on movies as distinctive as Minority Report, Fight Club, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The Darkest Hour does showcase convincingly post-apocalyptic city streets, and some of the destruction has a painterly look. But this fine art direction doesn’t create mood or sustain tension.
Gorak created small-scale suspense in his first feature, Right at Your Door, but the screenplay here doesn’t build a sense of unease; instead, it indulges in a hilarious number of narrative patch-overs, like the non-explanation of a second microwave gun and an attempt to wrap up a pointless subplot via a text message.
The movie stumbles and bumbles like a victim of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and takes everyone down with it. Hirsch and Thirlby, both usually charismatic performers, here look sapped of energy. And no wonder, they’re trapped in a bad kind of exploitation movie, the kind that’s too lazy and incompetent to exploit anything.