In post-apocalyptic movies, it’s tough to know whether concentrated ensembles, empty cities and unpopulated streets are a sign of terrific production design or low-budget shortcutting. In either case, there’s a distinct absence of both extras and ideas in “The Darkest Hour,” a mediocre bit of holiday counterprogramming whose novelty value is limited to its Russian locale and the idea that even a handful of genuinely talented young actors could inject some life into a derivative, uninspired, anemic alien-invasion movie.
Emile Hirsch plays Sean, a wunderkind code jockey with a predictable lack of practical skills who flies with his business-minded best friend Ben (Max Minghella) to Russia to pitch a website that shows globe-trotting partygoers all of the best local spots. Arriving to discover that a Swedish competitor named Skyler (Joel Kinnaman) stole their idea, they use their own site to find a nightclub where they can drown their sorrows, and end up meeting an Australian photographer named Anne (Rachael Taylor) and her comely assistant Natalie (Olivia Thirlby). But when the power mysteriously goes out, the club empties into the street, where Sean, Ben and company emerge to discover firework-like flashes of light descending from the skies. They soon discover that these flashes are anything but friendly after they vaporize a local police officer and attack anyone else in sight.
Hiding in a storage room until things quiet down, Sean, Ben, Anne and Natalie venture out into Moscow, only to discover that most of the city’s population was killed by what they realize is a hostile extraterrestrial force. But after they find a radio transmission announcing that a nearby Russian submarine is offering rescue to any survivors, they decide to make an arduous and unfamiliar journey through the heart of the aliens’ territory in the hopes they’ll find safety on the other side.
Having previously directed the shoestring containment thriller “Right At Your Door,” it’s not immediately clear why Chris Gorak was enlisted to tackle a big-budget alien invasion movie set literally against the backdrop of Russia. But looking at the “variety” of locations used in the film, it’s more apparent: notwithstanding the open-air sequences, the filmmakers couldn’t possibly have used more than three or four soundstages for the rest of the scenes (including two if not three different sequences that were set in rooms that had virtually identical geography), and Gorak’s low-budget background no doubt enabled them to maximize the few pennies left in the budget that weren’t devoted to special effects. And given his effective if uninventive work with “Right At Your Door,” he was probably a good choice to tackle material that’s practically boilerplate in a way that doesn’t feel totally clichéd.
But screenwriter Jon Spaihts (the upcoming “Prometheus”) marries only one interesting idea to the generic spectacle of an alien invasion – the idea that the aliens aren’t physical but energy-based creatures – and Gorak isn’t the right guy to bring that to life in a way that’s remotely interesting. To be fair, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing that successfully – they’re virtually invisible, so they’re essentially the static-electricity equivalent of the windborne madness M. Night Shyamalan made the backbone of “The Happening” – but it feels particularly disappointing that the film never maximizes the potential of such a unique idea, except for the purposes of the characters figuring out how to avoid, escape or stop the malevolent balls of energy. (Not to mention the fact that once we see inside their protective shield, the CGI used to reveal their alien countenances is some of the crummiest in recent memory.)
At just over 80 minutes, the film feels like it’s endured some major editing to get it into shape, which would account for the general lack of detail in almost all of the characters. Hirsch and Minghella are supposed to be one of those perfect dreamer-businessman partnerships, but neither is ever really allowed the opportunity to demonstrate their respective gifts, particularly since it seems just as likely that a rudimentary knowledge of physics would be as valuable to discovering the aliens’ strengths and weaknesses as Hirsch’s so-called aptitude for “thinking outside the box.” Meanwhile, Taylor and Thirlby struggle to give their characters more dimensionality than love interests or general female counterparts to the male leads; thankfully, Thirlby’s character has enough common sense to shed her clubbing heels before they dash off to a safe house, but that’s about the extent of her and Taylor’s ingenuity.
While the film’s commitment to upending audience expectations – at least insofar as who will live and who will die – is admirably unpredictable, a post-credits coda suggests that this film was meant to be the first in a potential series, if audiences responded strongly enough to it. But even with a trailer that showcased some of the carnage and the promise of an ensemble who might be able to do something more than run, scream and inevitably survive (and that’s not a spoiler), Gorak’s film is absent of any flicker of light that might justify another installment. While it’s hardly as relentlessly stupid as something like last year’s “Skyline,” “The Darkest Hour” fails to have enough batshit ideas to make it an eminently-watchable artistic disaster, instead being a generic let-down that isn’t bad enough even to be memorable. [D+]