The Darkest Hour
Directed by Chris Gorak. Starring Emile Hirsch, Olivia Thirlby, Rachael Taylor, Max Minghella, Joel Kinnaman, Veronika Ozerova, Dato Bakhtadze. (2011, PG-13, 89 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 30, 2011
Back in 2006, director Chris Gorak helmed one of the most disturbing meta-horror films I've ever seen: the little-seen, micro-budgeted Right at Your Door,, which posited the chillingly believable results of a dirty bomb exploding in contemporary Los Angeles. That film succeeded in freaking the wits out of anyone who bothered to see it because it was grounded in the everyday, the mundane, and what might presumably happen in a fear-driven nation such as ours when the object of that collective angst lands literally right at our door. (Arguably, a similar storyline unfolded in John Milius' much-loved/reviled pinko-plinking Red Dawn, but let's go there some other time, preferably over a few drinks at the Alamo Drafthouse.)
The Darkest Hour, an alien-invasion film set in Moscow and produced by the same team that gave us the infinitely superior Russian horror fantasies Night Watch and Day Watch may not be Gorak's personal darkest hour, but it's certainly not his finest, either. Saddled with a truly weak script from Jon Spaihts (who has also penned Ridley Scott's pending, highly anticipated Prometheus), the story involves invisible aliens who feed on electricity and kill off humanity here, there, and everywhere by turning them to ash via unimpressive, whiplike CGI weaponry. This is exactly the sort of film I wasn't expecting from either Gorak or his producers. In many too-obvious ways, this is just a formulaic riff on Spielberg's War of the Worlds, but at least that film had sound design to die for and a serious surfeit of imaginative imagery (recall that blazing passenger train which rocketed out of nowhere so shockingly or the disembodied clothing fluttering to the ground like so much Twin Towers subtext).
Populated by a pair of entrepreneurial Yanks (Hirsch and Minghella) on the loose in Moscow and their female counterparts/squeezes (Thirlby and Taylor), the film opens with a blackout – of power, information, and any idea what exactly is going on (shades of the immediate confusion following Right at Your Door's own breakdown of the status quo). That brief flicker of suspense in an otherwise suspense-free film quickly evaporates into a fairly standard alien-invasion plot that moves from Point A (What the hell are these things?) to Point B (How the hell do we stop them and save the world?) with nary an overused, expository cliché untapped. The film employs a nominal use of 3-D to minor effect, and the CGI aliens (when they're not invisible, that is) are less threatening than the three-lobed, papier-mâché Martian that so startled actress Ann Robinson in the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds directed by Byron Haskin and produced by George Pal.
At least that film, a bona fide classic of American sci-fi cinema, boasted achingly vibrant Technicolor and a plummy narration from no less than Sir Cedric Hardwicke. (For the record, Spielberg's clanky, whooshy do-over featured, all too predictably, Morgan Freeman, Hollywood's go-to God voice of late. No contest there.) The Darkest Hour has none of the zip, zing, or interplanetary xenophobic pizzazz of either of those films. Instead, it opts for less of the same old thing, but with more cruddy CGI and even more predictable results.