Bringing down the curtain on 2011’s cycle of alien invasion movies, The Darkest Hour is neither the best or the worst of the bunch (a dishonor held firmly by the staggeringly awful I Am Number Four). It’s quite dumb and the special effects are ridiculous, but it avoids being offensively bad and has the excellent taste to be over in less than an hour and a half, which means that, bad as it is, at least it’s not bad for terribly long.
Emile Hirsch and Max Minghella play two American guys on their way to Moscow for varying degrees of business and pleasure. They meet up with two quite pretty fellow Americans (Rachael Taylor, Olivia Thirlby), but before any fun can be had, some mysterious lights begin to descend from the sky and a couple cops get vaporized. The cohort, along with an obnoxious yuppie (Joel Kinnaman), hide and attempt to avoid getting killed by the invisible aliens, with varying degrees of success.
The Darkest Hour has the advantage of relative novelty on a number of counts. One, Moscow is awesome. Two, it’s nice to see an alien movie where the aliens land somewhere other than America, and probability dictates that if aliens landed on land, they would land somewhere in the largest country on the planet.
Three is where we start to get into problematic territory. Invisible aliens, in principle, is a great idea, and one I’d be all for if the movie did more with the idea. The people quickly figure out that the aliens are attracted to electronic gadgets....except when they’re not. Just like they’re invisible, except when they’re not. They also have the same inability shared by every single alien in the universe, regardless of number of tentacles or level of visibility, to wit very poor follow-through with killing all the Earthlings. Every time, they come to earth, they kill most of the Earthlings, and then a hardy band of survivors consisting to a very crucial degree of attractive Americans thwarts the aliens’ evil plans and there’s one more trip across the universe wasted.
Of course, if they killed everyone, there wouldn’t be a movie. And while it was a nice touch to have the Americans haplessly stumble around finding new ways to almost get killed until they find Russians to explain things to them and help them fight the invisible aliens (which involves ways of making them visible and then firing lots of bullets at them, not such a good touch), the American protagonists are all just kind of there. We aren’t sitting in the audience actively rooting for them to get killed, which is a plus in The Darkest Hour’s column, but we’re still not terribly invested in these characters, who are basically The Guy Who Becomes The Hero, The Girl Who Falls For The Hero, and a bunch of people who get killed. (For what it’s worth, I predicted the exact number and order of deaths about ten seconds after the aliens landed and started vaporizing people.)
As a confirmed lover of both alien movies and violent death, there’s a great deal of slack I’ll cut dumb alien movies if the violence is at least cool. The Darkest Hour is a bit curious in this regard because the alien SFX look stupid and fit poorly within the picture’s overall visual aesthetic. When the aliens kill people it looks ridiculous, but not in a way that induces anger or disgust. (It looks vaguely like the coin-bursting kills from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, a picture I liked, to the point where I expected to see a score flashing above a downed alien’s head.) Which leads to the conclusion that The Darkest Hour might simply be in the wrong medium: what is kind of a dumb, albeit mercifully short, movie could potentially be a compelling video game. Having control over the narrative and being able to play as, say, one of the women as opposed to just having the guys be the POV characters could lead to an interesting narrative to explore.
However, since The Darkest Hour is a movie and not a video game, it’s neither good enough to be actually good nor bad enough in the right way to be “so bad it’s good.” On the other hand, it’s not bad enough in the wrong way to provoke anger. But make no mistake, it’s not good in any way, and escapes being truly terrible through brevity, some cool shots of Moscow, some endearingly crazy Russians, and not very much else. Still, “not as bad as it could be” counts for something.
Danny Bowes is a filmmaker and writer, whose work has appeared on nytheatre.com and premiere.com. He writes a weekly column each Wednesday at Hudak on Hollywood and reviews Asian cinema for Next Projection.