I’ll be honest; as much as I’ve enjoyed the work of Timur Bekmambetov as a director, the choices he’s made as a producer trouble me. From the uninspired CGI flick, 9, to the dreadful found-footage in space yawner, Apollo 18, Bekmambetov hasn’t produced anything remotely resembling the kinetic, frenetic, and eye-popping spectacle of his own films. When I first saw trailers for The Darkest Hour in fall of 2011, I thought that was all going to change. Here was an FX-packed end-of-the-world actioner that not only took place in Bekmambetov’s mother Russia, but sported the same sort of steampunky sci-fi vibe that made the director’s spellbinding adaptation of the Russian novel, Night Watch, such a unique pleasure to behold. I was excited, to say the least.
The Darkest Hour opened on Christmas Day and, after much critical drubbing and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical run, vanished before I had a chance to see it for myself. Now that the flick’s been released on Blu-ray, I snapped up a copy and sat down to watch The Darkest Hour with absolutely zero preconceptions (I’m rarely swayed by critics - even myself). So does the return to Russia payoff or is The Darkest Hour yet another big nyet?
Enterprising software developers Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella) arrive in Moscow to pitch a new social media app (a sort of Foursquare/Facebook hybrid) to Russian investors only to find their deal queered by Swedish snake, Skyler (Joel Kinnaman). Sean and Ben decide to drown their sorrows at one of the local watering holes where they meet fellow American Natalie (indie darling, Olivia Thirlby) and her Aussie model friend, Anne (Rachael Taylor) who, coincidentally, used their app to find the club. Of course, Skyler’s there, as well, celebrating his ill-gotten success, but, Sean and Ben are having too much fun with Nat and Anne to notice. That is, until the lights go out and everyone rushes into the street where they see thousands of ethereally glowing orbs descending gently from the sky. It’s a gorgeous sight to behold, to be certain, but once the anomalies reveal themselves to be energy eating beasties whose touch turns organic matter into ashes, the mood shifts from wonder to terror.
Our quintet of heroes (well, Skyler’s not a hero, but you get the idea) take shelter in the bar’s basement and wait for five days before venturing out again. Moscow is a veritable ghost town, with downed planes, beached sea vessels, and crashed cars dotting the landscape. There’s not an alien in sight, so Ben suggests they try to make it to the U.S. Embassy (for some reason I couldn’t quite fathom seeing as how it doesn’t look like these aliens discriminate based upon nationality), but, along the way, they discover that the aliens are still very much among them, albeit invisible save for the illuminated streetlamps and light bulbs they leave in their wake. This gives Sean the idea to string bulbs around their necks as an early warning device, which then helps them learn more about the alien’s weaknesses (the inability to see through glass and an aversion to microwave energy chief among them).
The group leaves the embassy and finds a house with electricity further up the road. Its occupants, the inventor, Sergei (Dato Bakhtadze) and a young Russian girl named Vika (Veronika Ozerova), inform them that their only hope for rescue is to catch a ride on one of the nuclear submarines that are ferrying survivors to safety. Sergei also shows Sean and Ben a weapon he’s devised to fight off the aliens, but, almost as soon as they arrive, the aliens attack, vaporizing Sergei, and forcing the rest to flee. Armed with even more knowledge about the alien’s weaknesses, however, the remnants of the group joins forces with a small band of Russian fighters and fight their way through an alien-infested section of Moscow in hopes of meeting up with the submarine at its next stop.
The Darkest Hour is a great looking film with some pretty nifty special effects and a really novel setting in Moscow (which I believe is a first for an English language genre flick!). The problem is the film feels as lifeless as its abandoned city streets, with uninteresting characters with which I felt no connection whatsoever. The action scenes are well-staged, and there’s an occasional awe inspiring image thrown in here and there (most notably the collapsed bridge with the massive naval vessel rammed up against its supports), but it’s hard to get invested in a story that fails to make you care about any of the characters. Hell, even the underwritten Transformers movies had me holding my breath when a major player was cut down or pumping my fist when a hero got the best of the bad guys. With The Darkest Hour, I didn’t so much as flinch when a major character met their demise, and, during those manufactured moments when our heroes finally turn the tide, I found myself more underwhelmed than inspired. It’s a shame, too, as it’s obvious that a lot of work went into making this a damned fine looking movie. If only the same amount of effort were applied to the script and characterizations.
Summit Entertainment brings The Darkest Hour to Blu-ray with a 2.40:1 transfer that is, quite simply, gorgeous. The image is tack sharp and wonderfully vibrant, with exceptional levels of detail throughout. The CGI blends seamlessly with the digitally produced image, but even the real world qualities of the film – skin, cloth, and architecture – are rendered with an almost tangible quality. Paired with the very expressive and bombastic DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track, this is a reference quality title, which makes the film’s structural shortcomings that much more unfortunate.
Summit includes a nice selection of bonus features, including an engaging audio commentary with director, Chris Gorak, as well as the FX-centric featurette, The Darkest Hour: Visualizing an Invasion (HD), and the short film, Survivors (HD), which is an eight minute tale about another group caught in the invasion. Rounding out the extras is a collection of deleted and extended scenes (HD).
The Darkest Hour isn’t a bad way to kill a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon, but it could have been so much more had the filmmakers spent as much time developing their characters as they did creating the admittedly impressive visual effects. The Blu-ray from Summit Entertainment offers amazing picture and sound quality, so videophiles may be tempted to add this to their collection as a vehicle for showing off their systems, but, for everyone else, I’d suggest a rental first.