Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Better-Than-Average Alien Invasion Film, The Darkest Hour Is Only Ruined By The Previews!

The Good: Decent plot progression, Interesting alien designs, Decent acting
The Bad: Nothing terribly interesting about the characters, Somewhat inconsistent execution of alien abilities
The Basics: Fitting into a tough niche genre, The Darkest Hour tells a decent alien invasion/survivor chase story in Moscow, even if viewers are unlikely to actually care about the characters.

The alien invasion genre is a tough genre to make movies in these days. With so many films that have tackled the topic, it is hard to do something that feels new and fresh in the genre. These days, the genre tends to run into one of the two following problems: either the movie starts with a huge, dramatic beginning that makes the way humans overcome the alien menace utterly preposterous, like ID4: Independence Day (reviewed here!) or there is an appropriately nihilistic and ultimately unsatisfying resolution, much like Skyline (reviewed here!). The perspective is what makes most of the difference in the alien invasion genre these days: if the film involves people in-the-know, the alien invasion is usually filled with jargon to explain just how the invasion is occurring and works; if the film involves common people, they more often than not go through the process of discovering – through trial and error – exactly how the aliens operate and what their weaknesses actually are. In the latter case, the process of discovery usually makes the initial alien invasion seem less sensible or plausible. The Darkest Hour falls into the alien invasion films that follow common people.

And it would have been good, had I never seen any of the previews. Every major scene in The Darkest Hour is spoiled by the preview trailer. In fact, the trouble with The Darkest Hour is that because the preview trailers showed so many of the scenes from late in the film, I just kept waiting for the “bus scene” with Olivia Thirlby’s character and, frankly, I should not have known about it beforehand. That said, The Darkest Hour is a decent cinematic outing written by the co-writer of Prometheus (reviewed here!) and, despite having characters who have no real consequences for their survival, it feels surprisingly fresh.

Sean and Ben are American software designers working on a new app that they are trying to sell to a company in Moscow. There, however, they run into Skyler, who has stolen their idea and already is developing it. Leaving, feeling distraught, the two end up at a bar where they meet Natalie and Anne and Skyler as well. When the power goes out, the young people witness an alien invasion by bright lights that fall from the sky, knock out the power, and pulverize humans around them. After days in the bar’s stockroom, the quintet ventures out where they find Moscow in ruins and most of the population dead. The invaders, who are otherwise invisible, give themselves away from their proximity to electronic devices.

Meeting up with a Russian scientist and another survivor, the young people learn about the alien’s vulnerability to microwaves and discover there are submarines leaving Moscow the next morning. In trying to get to the submarine, Sean, Natalie, and their new friend Vika, meet up with Russian military officers and confront aliens, engineering the survival of humanity.

The Darkest Hour is a very typical alien invasion story, but the set-up is decent, the pace is wonderful and the progression is engaging enough to keep one enjoying the film. The film has one of the more sensible alien invasions in recent memory with aliens who have a creature design that is clever and interesting. The invisible aliens could have been a cheap cop-out; but director Chris Gorak utilizes the special effects to enhance the menace with frequent distortions and awesome designs when the aliens are revealed. Even better than the CG-effects for the aliens and the way they completely pulverize human beings, the music is utilized as a pretty wonderful special effect. In the beginning, with the world in its mundane form, the music is hip, contemporary, loud and intrusive. Following the invasion and the power getting knocked out, the soundtrack gets much quieter and haunting (instead of pop music).

The plot progression of The Darkest Hour is predictable, but occurs at a pace that is sensible. The characters are, for the most part, normal people and Sean is presented initially as clever enough to plausibly figure out that lightbulbs would be a good way to detect the otherwise invisible aliens. Given how many people are wiped out by the aliens, the lack of firm information and even military support is realistic and compellingly presented. And, as predictable as Skyler getting vaporized is, it is exactly as cathartic as it is supposed to be.

While the characters are not entirely compelling, the performances are actually wonderful. Olivia Thirlby’s Natalie is not the comic relief her character usually is and she illustrates quite a bit more range than she usually does. Emile Hirsch is given a smarter role than he was in other films in which he has appeared. All of the performers interact flawlessly with the virtual elements and they create a reality that mirrors what we see around us, making the alien invasion seem all the more horrific.

The Darkest Hour has its flaws – why do the aliens leave the cell phone network’s satellite network operational? And if they are after electroconductive minerals, why wouldn’t they attack the asteroid belt, Mars, or Venus first?! – and the initial design is very derivative of the aliens from Invasion (reviewed here!), but the sense of emptiness in the world and the infrequency of survivors that Sean and his friends encounter feels much more real than most big alien invasion stories.

For other alien invasion films, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Battlefield Lost Angeles


For other film reviews, be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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