“In the darkest hour the soul is replenished and given strength to continue and endure.”
“The darkest hour is just before the dawn.”
“The Darkest Hour is an awful film.”
It is such a shame when lofty ideas are squandered with an ill conceived screenplay or inadequate vision. The recent furore over Prometheus is testament to this. But whilst Prometheus, for all its faults and inconsistencies, remains a stunningly good visual experience, tonight’s feature doesn’t even have that going for it. Even taking into account the fact that is was made with around a quarter of the budget the film could still have the potential to look good, but it is all rather pedestrian. Suit up and insulate yourself while we take a close look at tonight’s feature presentation, The Darkest Hour.
I will be giving away various points in the movie which many will consider spoilers; I do this so that no one else has to suffer through it.
The film opens up on board an aircraft flying towards Russia. The flyby camera work finally settles on a character sitting in a window seat playing a game on his mobile device. Since the aircraft is closing in on its destination the stewardess asked for the device to be turned off due to possible interference with the aircraft systems (standard stuff). But instead of complying, he retorts with the oft quoted stance that if it really interfered there would be documented cases to which our stalwart stewardess grins and flirts at his charm and doesn’t take the position of authority, before the passenger next to him interrupts and concurs with turning the game off. The two passengers are Sean and Ben, and from their interaction we know they are friends; the charming, skirts with authority best friend to hardworking, upright and intelligent companion. Nothing cliché there then. This little standoff is interrupted by the ‘anvil of foreshadow’ when all the systems of the plane suddenly cut out plunging everything into darkness ...
Once on the ground we find out a little bit more about our protagonists, Ben is a software developer and has created a social network program that will enable travellers abroad to upload local night-life spots, places to visit and possibly arrange meet ups (actually sounds like a great idea) and they are in Moscow to try and get Russian investment in the idea. Sean, on the other hand, is somewhat of a hanger on, best friend and confidant, but not really into the development side; his natural charm makes him the front man of the presentation side, even if his jacket has holes in it. Sean is brought to life by Emile Hirsch, whom I’ve seen in The Girl Next Door and Speed Racer, and his performance here shows little distance from those previous outings; he is effortlessly charming, slightly roguish and reasonably dependable, but there is very little ‘behind the eyes’, no deep seated emotion to bring out the inner turmoil, though this has as much to do with the obvious script than his acting ability. Ben is portrayed by Max Minghella whose previous outings include Social Network and Ides of March, both of which outshine his very ordinary performance here. Relegated very much as the ‘sidekick’ to Hirsch’s Sean, he really should have had a greater focus as there is a shock in store for him (one which manages to elevate the entire film) and had there been more invested in him then its impact would have been that much more engaging.
Upon reaching the conference room ready to deliver their pitch they discover Skyler, a Swedish programmer, already there and promoting a website that looks identical to their own (and I do mean identical, same graphics, same images, same everything) at which point they realise something is amiss – apparently they didn’t have an NDA and hence their program is ripe for copying. (Really?) Whatever the truth or circumstance this scene is here to bring our protagonists to a low ebb and set up (all too predictably) friction between a character that you know is going to feature later in the film. This set back sees Sean and Ben hit the ‘hottest club in town’, at least according to their own website, where they hope to hook up with an American girl who is logged into the system. Once there, they proceed to drink, lament and further bond, with Ben never being able to stay mad and Sean and his happy go lucky, things will always workout attitude. Even when they spy Skyler, the brief altercation (“it’s just business,” “you’re a thief”) doesn't spoil their mood as they zero in on the American (well one American, one Australian) girls and thus introduce us to our second set of protagonists. Natalie is presented as a dependable girl, close to her mother but up for adventure. She is played by Olivia Thirlby whose major claims to fame are Juno, No Strings Attached and the up and coming Dredd, and here she plays her part like she rides her bicycle, i.e. without thinking. Anne is brought to life by Rachael Taylor who can be seen in Transformers and the TV shows Grey’s Anatomy and the Charlie’s Angels reboot, but here she is not given very much to do except be scared, noisy and annoying.
We are now some twenty minutes into the film and all the background information we’re going to get about our main characters has been given, and it really doesn't amount to much. All the clichés are checked and no one has managed to gain any empathy with the audience since the pacing, scripting and, not least, the performances simply don’t demand it, thus, once bad things start to happen we don’t really care one way or the other. As with the plane earlier, the first indication that things are going wayward is a shorting of all the buildings electrics, only it's not just the building, seems phones, watches, indeed anything electrical just stops. This prompts everyone in the club to go outside and watch the light show going on out there. In the sky huge orange luminescent shapes are floating down to earth but when they land they disappear – except they don’t as one hapless policeman finds out when he steps a little bit too close; he’s picked up and vaporised into dust ‘Buffy vampire staking style’. This obviously leads to much panic as the terrified night clubbers scramble to escape, with the invisible lights dusting everyone they ‘see’ in hot pursuit. In what is one of the better scenes from the movie the aliens kill indiscriminately and Skyler shows an even darker side when he shuts the door on the girl he is with to give himself more time to escape. Cliché dictates, of course, that our (now) five main characters find themselves locked inside a room to escape the carnage outside.
It is at this point in the film when things could have become very interesting. In having spent the time to build up the antagonistic relationship between the three males there could have been some character exploration between them now being trapped in close confinement. I wouldn’t expect anything near Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, but something (anything) might have gone down well; instead we have a brief montage as the days are ticked off on screen which finally comes to a head when Sean and Skyler get to lock horns – though it is (far too) swiftly defused. The only question I had about the scene was; where did they poo? Sums up my feelings on the film really. Anyway, the decision is made to leave the confines of the safe haven (probably getting a bit wiffy) and explore ‘28 Days Later style' the surrounding city. Seeing many of the iconic Moscow images desolated and devastated works really well and this short section contains some of the best camerawork for the film. I also loved the ash that is blown about the city streets, reminding you what has happened to the inhabitants. But the good feelings were short lived, because my sceptical brain started to question. Russia at one time had the largest army in the world, things have changed a little but their military personnel still rank in number within the top ten, plus they are extremely well equipped. So where are they? We are lead to believe that initial attack from the aliens was preceded by a global electro-magnetic pulse that essentially wiped out the Russian national grid (i.e. the supply of electricity to the country) exactly what it would do – but it is also established later in the film that within certain conditions some electronic equipment can survive (in this case an entire nuclear submarine). However those things that do not require electronics would not be affected. Thus you have a huge army, all with hand weapons, plus heavy artillery and even vehicles which remain fully functional. Surely battle lines would be drawn, a defensive parameter to ensure the survival of the planet? As we shall see bands of men on horseback using bazookas have formed a makeshift defence, why not the organisation that has the man power and equipment to do such things? Oh, I know, budget.
Meanwhile our intrepid group hold up ‘Dawn of the Dead style’ in a shopping precinct where they get provisions and work out a little bit about how the aliens react to their surroundings. They, somehow, affect the electrical items around them (you know the stuff that was all knocked out with the EPM?), thus when they approach lights start to flash. This leads to some attempt at tension when our team are trapped and lights are flashing all around, including the bulbs they have around their necks as early warning devices; luckily glass insulates their bio-electric signals so they are perfectly safe in shop windows (!!). The discovery of the aliens effect on lights mean that the team decide to move about at night, their plan is to get to the American Embassy, but when they arrive, guess what, it’s as devastated as the rest of the city. They explore the devastation ‘The Thing style’ then decide to get to higher ground to check out the city and form another plan, Skyler, after picking up a rifle, electing to hold the fort on the ground floor, even though the hundreds of spent rounds, bullet holes and lack of survivors means that hand guns clearly have little effect on the invaders. It is upstairs where the science really starts to fall apart, and it only gets worse. A walky-talky in a bird cage (which acts like a Faraday cage) picks up a transmission about a Russian nuclear submarine that will be at a certain point to pick up survivors if there are any left and can make it to the escape point before they depart – a Faraday cage eliminates all electromagnetic waves, no radio signal would get through (d'oh). However, this plot device gives some (much needed) forward momentum to the script, there is now a time element to their escape. But things begin to fall apart within the group. Anne, previously the ‘strong one’ becomes a cowardly wreck, Ben, formerly intelligent and forward thinking, becomes a slave to Sean’s ideas and Skyler, well he’s out by himself. Seems he’s seen a building with power ‘28 Days Later style’, and is heading towards it – but we all know what’s going to happen to him, don’t we.
The remaining group, however, with nothing left to lose think it's still a good idea and head out, racing dawn, to get to the light where they discover an eccentric inventor who lives in his own apartment sized Faraday cage. (This idea isn't as far fetched as it might seem, check the internet for how to survive an EMP attack, I'm sure there are plenty of 'eccentrics' that live in one). He’s worked out that the aliens use electromagnetic radiation to create the barrier which not only renders them invisible but makes them impervious to bullets (you know ‘Star Trek style shields’). He therefore builds a microwave (?) rifle to disrupt their shield and temporarily disorientate them. Going back a minute, if this eccentric old man is able to work all this out and build a weapon – I ask again, what about the military; EMP’s are mainly associated with nuclear explosions high in the atmosphere, though Solar Flares have very similar properties, and whilst civilian population centres have done little if anything to protect against it, the military certainly have – so where are they during this invasion? What about the scientists developing counter measures? I realise that this film is concentrating on a group of civilian survivors ‘War of the Worlds style’ but to simply ignore such a huge aspect renders the film moot. Even the submarine does nothing but run. There could still be something in the film, even ignoring all the rubbish science and lack of military involvement, if the group dynamic was such that it kept you watching. But there is no chemistry between the leads and no empathy with their situation. Even when tragedy strikes, there is little feeling for the characters or their plight, a combination of weak scripting and lacklustre acting being the main culprits. Having said that, there is one small twist that I didn’t see coming, the death of (another) one of the main characters that elevated the film in such a way as to keep you guessing who will actually survive. For this one scene I’m awarding one extra point to the score!
However, despite some clever design choices, the odd good looking and the very occasional well constructed scene, there is not much to admire with the overall film. Director Chris Gorak only has one other directing credit to his name and sadly it shows, even at eighty five minutes in length the film feels too long, it just drags. Cinematographer Scott Kevan used this film as a training ground for Underworld: Awakening, his composits for the 3D photography being well thought-out but never really inspired; there is never a feeling of total immersion such as there is with Hugo, and it feels tacked on and never fluid, something he did manage to achieve with his next film. And on top of everything there is that ‘made for TV’ look and feel it has, and it is not just a purely budgetary constraint, though that may have had some bearing - but when shows such as Broadwalk Empire or Game of Thrones look more epic and absorbing in their TV ratio compared to the cinemascope ratio this has received, you know something is amiss. Big on ideas, but failing to live up to them is only part of the story, pedestrian acting and sloppy delivery mean that The Darkest Hour should be left in a darkened cupboard.
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