The Darkest Hour


The Darkest Hour

Emile Hirsch mistakenly thought his scavenger hunt list said "gremlin."

(2011) Science Fiction (Summit) Emile Hirsch, Olivia Thirlby, Max Minghella, Rachael Taylor, Joel Kinnaman, Veronika Ozerova, Dato Bakhtadze, Gosha Kutsenko, Nikolai Efremov, Vladimir Jaglich, Arthur Smoljaninov, Anna Roudakova, Pyotr Fyodorov. Directed by Chris Gorak

 

Some movies have little or no potential and make the most of what they have. Others take wonderful ideas and go absolutely nowhere with them. Which one would you rather see?

This is one of the latter. Hirsch and Minghella play a couple of net entrepreneurs who fly to Moscow to pitch an app to a bunch of venture capital bigwigs, only to see their idea stolen by Skyler (Kinnaman), a slimy Swede. The boys, furious and with uncertain futures, decide to go to a sleazy disco to drown their sorrows. There they meet Natalie (Thirlby) and Anne (Taylor), American and Australian (respectively) tourists who are apparently globe hopping in order to meet boys. Guess there weren’t enough slimy club hounds in their own neck of the woods.

While in the club, Moscow gets invaded by – wait for it – Christmas lights. Well, that’s what it looks like at first until the aliens actually arrive and are completely invisible. They are also deadly, reducing any organic matter they touch into ash. Whenever they’re around, they generate an electrical field that turns on car alarms, light bulbs and cell phones, all of which have gone dead (we assume an EMP has passed through the city but are never shown that definitively).

After a week in the club’s pantry, the four (who have been joined by Skyler who turns out to be even more of a dick than they thought) set out on foot to find other survivors and to find food, shelter and water. Eventually they learn of a nuclear submarine which intends to ferry survivors to a safe place (the aliens can’t see through machinery or glass – they detect humans by their bio-energy or some such gobbledygook) which I would imagine is somewhere in the middle of the ocean.

Director Gorak’s last film was the much-superior Right at Your Door which made a lot more from a lot less. That film adequately captured what humans do in impossibly stressful situations (in that case, the detonation of a dirty bomb in a metropolitan area) and made his characters non-heroic at times. Here, he also makes some of the characters non-heroic although Hirsch’s Sean character falls into the mold of the brainy hero.

The problem here is that none of the characters are given much in the way of characteristics. They’re all pretty much unremarkable, all given a single characteristic (Anne’s fear, Skyler’s amorality) in which their character pretty much uses as a means of reaction to every situation. They come off as one-dimensional not because the actors are bad, but because they’ve only been given one dimension to work off of. Whereas Gorak’s last film was filled with real human beings, that doesn’t happen here.

Another missed opportunity is the aliens themselves. They are invisible through most of the film, which gives the filmmakers an opportunity to develop a great deal of tension and paranoia. That also never happens here; the aliens appear with such regularity that you just assume that wherever the characters go there’s going to be an invisible alien trolling about waiting to turn someone to ash (including a hapless dog). When the aliens finally are revealed, they are less than satisfying.

This is pretty bloodless. Not only the humans turn to ash but when the aliens blow up they turn into hunks of what looks like volcanic glass. Even gorehounds will be irritated by this movie.

The Russian locations aren’t used to their best effect in most cases, although there’s a really nice scene in Red Square. By and large, producer Timur Bekmambatov (director of such fine films as Night Watch and Wanted) should have done a better job of showing off his city; for the most part it looks pretty dull and boring.

The concept was good here; the execution was lacking and mostly due to lazy writing and poor decision making on the parts of the filmmakers. If you’re going to use Moscow as your backdrop, don’t trap your characters in malls and pantries. If you’re going to have invisible aliens, use them sparingly – make our spines tingle. If you’re going to write a science fiction picture, don’t baffle us with bull-crap; cut down the scientific jargon to a minimum and give the poor actors something to work with. I was sorely disappointed here.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting premise and some nifty effects shots.

REASONS TO STAY: Missed opportunity; none of the characters are drawn all that well and the plot is awfully predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words, some disturbing images and lots of action violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Production was suspended for three weeks due to air pollution caused by the wildfires that surrounded Moscow in the summer of 2010 while production was underway. After production resumed, there was still some smoke in the air that had to be digitally removed in some shots.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/1/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 16/100. The reviews are extremely poor.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Skyline

ALIEN INVASION LOVERS: Should be high on your list but be warned that when you finally do see the aliens, it’s a bit of a letdown.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Roommate

Right at Your Door


Mary McCormack just got in on the redeye.

Mary McCormack just got in on the redeye.

(Roadside Attractions) Mary McCormack, Rory Cochrane, Tony Perez, Scotty Noyd Jr., Max Kasch, Jon Huertas, Will McCormack. Directed by Chris Gorak.

When the chips are down, how will we respond? Will we take heroic measures to save our loved ones from harm, or will we save ourselves first?

Brad (Cochrane) and Lexi (McCormack) have moved in to a new home near downtown L.A. She works in an office, and he is a musician, so his hours are far more irregular. Still, he’s a good husband, preparing her coffee for her before she must get up to go to work and taking care of affairs for the couple while she is busy on the job.

It’s a morning like any other; traffic is bad as always but the smog’s not too bad, even if it promises to be a warm summer day. Lexi takes off for work, promising to use side streets after reports of badly backed up traffic on the freeways. Then things take a left turn.

Reports of explosions throughout the city cause mass confusion. Brad can’t get in contact with his wife, who was in the area of the first explosions and he is frantic. He decides to go and get her, or at least find out what happened. This proves to be impossible, however, as the police are blocking access to main streets leading to the downtown area in order to facilitate emergency vehicles.

Still, the reports get worse. It turns out that these explosions weren’t just ordinary bombs; they were dirty bombs, loaded with a lethal toxin that is being carried on the ash. Brad makes it to a hardware store where he buys duct tape and other material to seal his house. He then returns home to wait for his wife but not before encountering Timmy (Noyd), a small boy whose mother hadn’t picked him up from school. Brad urges Timmy to run home as fast as he can, then continues to his own home.

As he frantically listens to the news awaiting any information, there’s a knock on his door. It’s Alvaro (Perez), the neighbor’s handyman. He is a long way from his home and there’s no way he’d get there in time before the ash overcame him. He asks for shelter in Brad’s home. Brad is at first reluctant, but then agrees.

Time passes and still no word from Lexi. Her mother calls and Brad assures her that they are both fine and riding things out at home. When she demands to speak to Lexi directly, he hangs up on her, unsure what to do and helpless to act. Alvaro is urgently badgering Brad to seal up the house, promising him that Lexi has probably taken shelter somewhere already. The ash cloud is getting closer and closer. Hammered by Alvaro’s urgings and his mind numbed by panic, Brad and his guest use sheets of plastic and the duct tape to seal up the house as best they can. He waits as long as he possibly can until, with the ash falling outside, he seals the front door.

The next day, there is a frantic knock at the door. It is Lexi, who has come on foot from downtown after her car was damaged in the blasts. She herself is all right, but she is coughing violently. She wants in. She is obviously infected, terrified and in need of comfort. Does Brad let her in and risk exposure, or does he keep himself quarantined and safe?

Director Gorak crafts a nice, taut drama that puts his characters in an unimaginable situation. To his credit, he doesn’t make Brad particularly heroic. Certainly he loves his wife and his worry for her is genuine. Given a choice to save his own life and hers, he makes a choice that might make some take pause, but seems to be pretty authentic to my eye.

The situation certainly seems realistic. The information that Brad receives is piecemeal and often wrong. Rumor and innuendo are valid sources of information in the world where the news is often confusing and nonsensical. He has to make decisions based on often-faulty or untrustworthy information. He relies on Alvaro who while seemingly calm is just masking an inner hysteria which is close to coming to the surface.

Nobody really goes into a full-on meltdown. There really isn’t any time for it. The panic shows in the irrational decisions, the eagerness to believe what they want to believe despite having no basis for it. Having been through a natural disaster, I can tell you that much of what Gorak is describing here is absolutely dead on. Remembering how official agencies and the media reacted in the wake of 9-11, it’s easy to see how misinformation would be spread by agencies eager to report any news at all, even if it can’t be verified.

This is certainly a study in human nature rather than an examination of how official agencies react in crisis. Our tendency is to do what is most beneficial to us at the expense of others even in the best of times, and crises tend to amplify our basic behaviors. The acting here is solid and authentic-feeling; nothing rings false. There is also a nice but unexpected ending, the nature of which I won’t reveal here.

This is not a spectacle in the least. The disaster is reported in an almost matter-of-fact matter and for the most part is described rather than actually seen. The fall of ash is eerie and snow-like, unsettling more because we know what the ash is carrying. We associate big special effects with most disaster movies and in a way, this is a disaster movie but this is entirely low-key. The special effects occur almost completely in our imaginations, where the budget is unlimited.

I liked this movie while I was watching it, but I liked it even more when it was done and the longer time has passed since I’ve seen it, the more I like it. To me, that’s the mark of a good motion picture, when the movie gets better as you think about it more. You may not find spectacle, but you’ll find insight and authenticity. Perhaps that’s what makes this all the more frightening; the unseen generally is the most terrifying thing of all.

WHY RENT THIS: An authentic look at human nature in a severe crisis. The filmmakers rely on the description of events rather than on special effects to make this more taut and effective.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some people may want something more spectacular than this in a disaster movie.

FAMILY VALUES: The situation is fairly adult and there is a child placed in harm’s way. The depiction of the toxin taking effect is scary, and the description of the explosions and their aftermath may be too graphic for the young.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Filming took place in the Silver Lake districte of Los Angeles.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Cache