The Darkest Hour is not yet another war movie in which aliens are randomly substituted for humans so they can squeak past the MPAA with a PG-13 rating while still delivering maximum shoot-em-up carnage. That instantly lifts this a notch above every alien invasion movie released in the past two years, outside of Attack the Block. Writer Jon Spaihts’ script goes about this in the right way, by telling a story involving a vicious alien attack that’s completely unique in its execution. The very nature of the aliens of themselves is integral to the plot, and that unique idea is The Darkest Hour’s biggest strength.
The film also deserves credit for being a rare alien attack movie that isn’t set in the now generically overused New York or Los Angeles. It fact, it doesn’t show us what’s happening in the United States at all. Instead the script follows two young American entrepreneurs named Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella) on a business trip to Moscow when the unthinkable happens. Strange lights fall out of the sky and start, quite literally, disintegrating everyone. Contact with these creatures means instant death and they seem bent on wiping out all of humanity by the end of the week. They’re really good at it, in large part because they’re virtually invisible until they attack, and in larger part because no one has a chance to figure out how to fight them before they end up dead.
Sean and Ben survive the initial onslaught by hiding with a Swede named Skyler (Joel Kinnaman) and a pair of fellow tourists named Natalie (Olivia Thirlby) and Anne (Rachael Taylor). Lost and alone in a now empty and very dangerous Moscow they look for a way to survive, or barring that a reason to go on living. In the process they may stumble on a way to fight back, because this is of course an action movie and not an all alien attack redo of The Road.
That’s alright. It may seem a little ridiculous that a few tourists would find a way to combat invisible aliens but the script handles this rather smartly, by basing its seemingly unimaginable extraterrestrials on scientific concepts as simple as the ones running appliances in your kitchen. In that sense it’s almost realistic that a few humans, given the chance to sit down and actually think about what they’ve encountered, might really figure out a way to do something about it using the basic knowledge everyone has gleaned from your average high school science class.
In that sense The Darkest Hour celebrates brains over brawn in a true science fiction tale which, if often a little light on the special effects, at least has its head in the right space. Besides, even if a lot of the movie is spent watching people walk around empty streets, those empty streets are in Russia. For American audiences it’s a place as strange and unfamiliar as any alien planet. The fact that it’s presented in 3D doesn’t add much to what you’re looking at, but at least it doesn’t detract either. Every shot is crisp and clear, and the few moments when the movie does spend its budget on spectacle pop right off the screen in crisp ribbons of glowing energy.
In the end The Darkest Hour stumbles, a little afraid perhaps, to end on too much of a downbeat, but even there it stays away from the magic bullet clichés you’ve seen in every other similar adventure. You never really care about any of the film’s lifeless characters, which really hurts when it comes time to be interested in whether they live or die. But director Chris Gorak is good enough to keep his film entertaining, if not exactly engaging, throughout. The Darkest Hour is worth a look.