With Emile Hirsch, Olivia Thirlby, Max Minghella, Rachael Taylor, Joel Kinnaman. Written by Jon Spaihts. Directed by Chris Garak. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and some language. 89 minutes.
Dumped on Christmas Day with no press screenings and a lot of advertising – including promotional screenings from which critics were barred – THE DARKEST HOUR fairly announced itself as a holiday turkey. Instead, it’s further proof of veteran screenwriter William Goldman’s famous dictum about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.”
“The Darkest Hour” turns out to be a low-rent version of “Independence Day” (1996) set entirely in Moscow. Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella) are two young Americans in Moscow to do a software deal only to find themselves screwed over by Skyler (Joel Kinnaman) who has ripped off their idea and dares them to do something about it. That night Sean and Ben meet two attractive American women, Natalie (Olivia Thirlby) and Anne (Rachael Taylor), at a Moscow nightspot where they run into Skyler as well. Suddenly, the lights go out and everyone goes outside to witness an unusual display of lights in the sky. When one touches down near the crowd of clubgoers a police officer tries to make contact with it and is instantly disintegrated.
What follows is in the style of many alien invasion films, from “War Of The Worlds” (1953) to “Battle: Los Angeles” (2011). The aliens wreak havoc, destroying buildings and slaughtering Earthlings, while our plucky heroes try to survive and figure out a way to fight back. It’s not giving too much away to note that not everyone we meet will make it to the end of the film.
The movie has two things going for it. One is the conceit of the aliens. The ads make it seem as if they are invisible which isn’t quite true. They are encased in energy fields which are barely visible but reveal themselves when they pass anything electrical – like a car or a streetlamp – which reacts to their presence. This plays out in interesting and occasionally surprising ways so that even though this is primarily an action/chase film it doesn’t feel dumbed-down.
The second are the Moscow locations. Unless you’re a student of modern Russian film, you probably haven’t seen a lot of Moscow in the movies, although the Russian horror films “Nightwatch” and its sequel “Daywatch” gave international audiences a taste of locations just waiting to be exploited. This isn’t just showing the Kremlin and then going to the studio (a la “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”) but combining live action and CGI as destruction tears across the city.
The young cast all have substantial credits, and though none of them is likely to cite this movie as one of their great performances, they do have sufficient craft and experience to inhabit their roles so they are more than walking clichés. We want these characters to survive and when some of them don’t it’s not like “Blonde #3” getting speared by Jason in a “Friday the 13th” movie. The actors take the material and run with it.
“The Darkest Hour” turns out to be a solid science fiction action movie that delivers on its promise. The nitwit at Summit Entertainment who thought this was such a terrible film that critics should not be allowed to see it until it opened on Christmas should go into another line of work. He or she obviously knows nothing about movies.***
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.