Monday, May 14, 2012

The Darkest Hour (2011)

     Wasting little time establishing characters or their lives, The Darkest Hour (2011) does everything it can to get right to its alien invasion and special effects.  Then, surprisingly, the aliens are largely relegated to the background and the characters who haven't been developed are left to wander through largely undamaged Moscow.  And it is a Moscow full of clean streets – except for people-ash – and upscale shopping malls.  The shots of Red Square essentially scream out "Come visit Moscow, Western tourists."
     Despite its many flaws (some of which I will address), I mostly enjoyed The Darkest Hour.  Even with the cast seeming like they were left on their own, I thought they did a serviceable job in moving the story along with something resembling a human element.  Director Chris Gorak (I've seen both of his feature films!) may have been more concerned with his camera angles and lighting than consistent emotion, but I suspect that the underplaying of the obvious end of the world fits with the target audience's attitude about everything that isn't them
     The Darkest Hour rates ahead of many other films that have been set behind the old Iron Curtain, not in small part because it had a decent production budget.  However, the limits of that budget can be seen a little too often.  There is the time killing not-quite montage that lets us know the prospective heroes have spent five days in a storeroom (that always has light, even at night, despite the fact that the electricity wasn't working at the time), the complicated overuse and under-use of the aliens making electronic devices function just by being near them (we all know that when a cell phone powers up, it rings...right?), and the very disappointing reveal of the aliens once they are made visible – it is not as awful as the CGI shark that eats Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea (1999), but it is not much better.
     There is some poor understanding of history (or at least the presentation of it) with the Russians who will not retreat from their homeland and who will battle the aliens no matter what.  Then again, I have no idea what kind of factual history was taught during the waning days of the U.S.S.R., so maybe this is a good representation of what those characters would believe.  Of course, the story also features a pack of characters who are in Moscow (on purpose) who cannot speak nor read Russian.  But rather than have this contribute to the strangeness and sense of danger or doom, most of the Russian characters can speak English so as to move the story along.
     I do like that the film doesn't mind killing its characters, but there is one character who was screaming to be killed (in gloating over the aliens) and it didn't happen.  That kind of bummed me out, but I guess whether that death happened or didn't, it would be the same cliche.  The Darkest Hour doesn't run from cliches, but it does try to keep them in their place; they help establish the world more than the expectations of the story.  Okay, the entire plot is essentially a kind of cliche by now, but wholly reworking it would just be an avant-garde experiment. 
     Gorak tried a little bit of that in his first feature, Right at Your Door (2006).  It felt forced there, and I would like to think he thought that being more traditional approach would be more palatable.  What I think he needed was a larger cast of starting characters, and for those characters to have been developed.  The Darkest Hour is, essentially, a disaster movie.  The formula is to get us to care about the characters and their situations, and then to watch their struggles after the disaster.  Like in The Grey (2011), it is acceptable to slowly kill off those characters.  Actually, it would make a hell of a lot more sense to do it in an alien invasion movie than a trek-through-the-wilderness-while-not-being-smart-enough-to-make-spears-to-fend-off-the-wolves movie.
     The Darkest Hour – it doesn't require much thinking or commitment to its characters, not does it have the best effects (but the people turning to dust it cool), but it is a fun diversion. 

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