For a movie fan, few things hurt quite so much as a strong young director following up something great with something awful. Thusly do we get Chris Gorak’s blander than a low sodium rice cake dud The Darkest Hour after his positively brilliant Twilight Zone episode of a film Right At Your Door.
I am sad.
Quick Plot: Two boring-to-awful young software developers are flying to Moscow to pitch their new social networking website. One is played by Anthony Mingella’s son with the personality of mayonnaise. The other is played by the usually charming, here just irksome Emile Hirsch.
I do not know or care what their names are.
Okay, fine. You might think I’m being overly harsh on a film that’s just begun, but this, THIS is the opening scene:
Two American dudes are on an airplane. The pilot announces they’re approaching landing mode, prompting the flight attendant to kindly ask Emile Hirsch to turn off his mobile device. Rather than, you know, TURNING OFF HIS MOBILE DEVICE LIKE EVERYONE ELSE, Emile Hirsch launches into a smarmy, poorly written (by Prometheus scribe Jon Spaihts, I say with shivers) monologue that I assume is supposed to be charming about how that’s actually a myth and like, have you ever TESTED that theory?
This man is supposed to be our hero.
I reach for the barf bag.
Once in Moscow, our duo learns that their Swedish partner has hijacked their idea and already sold it. Naturally, two ugly Americans mourn by heading to a hip Russian club where everyone is incredibly attractive, including a fellow American girl (Brunette) and Aussie (Blonde, and yes, that will be their names for the rest of this review because I DON’T CARE). They’re making painfully dull smalltalk when suddenly, orbs of light start falling from the sky and dissolving any living thing that comes into their zone.
It’s an alien invasion! I use the exclamation point because finally, something happens onscreen that makes me actually want to look up from my burrito to my TV screen. The design of the alien attack is actually quite original: rather than big tentacled creatures, the monsters in this case travel via wavelengths. They’re mostly invisible to the human eye, appearing as spots of light that will trigger electricity nearby. So that’s neat.
If only I cared about a single character the aliens were attacking. Our quartet plus the nasty Swede hide out in the club’s cellar as a time stamp—no, seriously—tells us they stay there for “Monday” and “Tuesday.” THAT is the kind of movie this is: one so inept in its script that it can’t express the passage of a small amount of time without blatantly spelling out WHAT DAYS HAVE JUST PASSED.
Anyway, our boring white people emerge from the cellar to travel the barren streets of Moscow, perhaps the one other glint of neatness in the drudge of an 89 minute film. Seeing the Kremlin all but empty IS cool, don’t get me wrong. But seeing that the only people inhabiting it are like coffee break stand-ins for Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield in The Social Network is just sad.
At a certain point, our “heroes” meet a band of Russian badasses who are actively fighting the alien light thingies. These dudes ride horses clad in Tupperware, shoot machine guns with proud Russian bullets, and carry a wonderful sense of personality so direly lacking in our main characters. Why oh why couldn’t The Darkest Hour be about THEM?
Chris Gorak’s previous film was a smart and effective indie called Right At Your Door, wherein a stay-at-home husband had to decide whether or not to let his wife inside during a nuclear attack after she had already been exposed to deadly fallout. It was challenging and scary, filled with wonderfully rich characters and a brilliantly drawn sense of doom done with little budget. The Darkest Hour, in contrast, is a big, ugly, and worst of all, BORING retread through alien invasion. The film was released in 3D and ouch does that hurt its appearance on DVD. While I do think the concept of the monsters is quite different, the execution comes off flat. When we finally see the creatures, we might as well be watching test effects reels from the ABC miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s Langoliers.
Except we’re not, because for all its faults, at least The Langoliers had diverse characters. Towards the end of The Darkest Hour, one character starts screaming for Natalie, Natalie, we can’t leave with Natalie! My notes:
She’s the Brunette. The Brunette who I know nothing about, nor do I care to learn. I don’t expect rich Tolstoy-esque writing from a sci-fi action thriller, but that doesn’t mean you can just give mildly attractive 20somethings directions to run, look scared, and occasionally cry and I’m supposed to care an ounce whether they survive or not, especially when they’re essentially asking other, more likable characters to put their OWN lives at risk in order to do so. Who IS Natalie? There’s some mention about an ex-boyfriend and her being valedictorian. The Blonde has an Aussie accent. Emile Hirsch sassed a flight attendant. Anthony Mingella’s son…exists.
I count myself amongst the fairly vocal contingent that thought Cloverfield was a groovy exercise hampered by dreadfully unsympathetic characters. Well folks, I take that back: compared to The Darkest Hour, the cast of Cloverfield deserve to win every Oscar and Nobel Prize known to man.
It’s mildly surprising when a few of our leads meet the Invisible Smoke Monster of Dissolving Doom. Of course, it’d be more effective IF WE ACTUALLY CARED
Aside from pretty much everything, how about the fact that we’re never really given any chance to consider the millions of Muscovites who were wiped out in the initial attack? Our barely legal leads carry no weight with them (which is bad enough) but considering this film had access to some truly amazing parts of one of the most interesting cities in the world, you’d think they could establish SOMETHING worth noticing, like an abandoned ferris wheel at Gorky Park or a grand theater just emptied of its ticketholders. There’s never the single slightest sense that a genocide has taken place, meaning not only do we already NOT care about the survivors, but we have no real context as to who they even outlived
Young people make rash decisions
Always carry a Sharpee when traveling
Hey screenwriters, here’s a lesson: if you want the audience to immediately hate your hero, have your opening scene involve him harassing a perfectly nice flight attendant just trying to do her job. Guaranteed way to get us off his side
I was enthusiastically looking forward to The Darkest Hour and even felt slightly bummed to have missed its brief theatrical run. I LOVED Gorak’s last film, and since I spent 9 months in Moscow a few years back as an ESL teacher, the chance to see the city onscreen in one of my favorite genres was incredibly exciting. All this makes the utter dullness of The Darkest Hour positively tragic. This is a boring, uninspired, and poorly constructed film. Hardcore sci-fi nerds might appreciate the new spin on the alien forms, but that’s the extent of my recommendation. Towards the end of the film, our leads reach a boat and suddenly I started thinking to myself “Hey! I wonder if Haunted Boat is still on Instant Watch.” Now kids, Haunted Boat was without a doubt one of the absolute WORST films I’ve ever watched for this here blog, and yet I would have traded my full stash of Tootsie Rolls won in a piñata raid to switch endings just so I could at least enjoy some aspect onscreen. It might seem like I’m being overly hard on The Darkest Hour, considering I’ve given a pass to such hated works as the Nightmare On Elm Street reboo—er, remake and… But truthfully, this movie made me sad and angry. That’s a dangerous combination.