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Feature


Young American entrepreneurs Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella) travel to Moscow to sell their vaguely defined social networking software to Russian investors only to find their software has been hijacked and already sold by smarmy Swedish businessman Skyler (Joel Kinnaman). Dejected, Sean and Ben spend the evening drinking at a busy nightclub, where they meet up with a young American Natalie (Olivia Thirlby ) and her Australian friend Anne (Rachael Taylor), and eventually run into Skyler. That night something cuts the power to the club, sending the group outside, where they realize all of Moscow is dark, and an aurora borealis-like apparition has appeared in the sky. Glowing lights float down to Earth, then become invisible electrical forces that disintegrate human victims and blow holes in walls. Ben, Sean, Natalie, Anne, and Skylar escape the mayhem, and hide in a storage room for several days, a move apparently no one else in Moscow attempted, because when they finally emerge the streets are empty of life, and covered in human ashes.

Darkest Hour, The (2D)
In 2011 eleven alien invasion films were theatrically released, including Jonathan Liebesman’s videogame inspired Battle: Los Angeles, J. J. Abrams’ Spielberg inspired Super 8, Michael Bay’s ridiculous Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Greg Mottola’s Simon Pegg and Nick Frost comedy Paul, Simon Wells’ kid-friendly Mars Needs Moms, D. J. Caruso’s teen-friendly I Am Number Four, Joe Cornish’s fantastic UK set Attack the Block, Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s ill-advised The Thing prequel/remake, Jon Favreau’s mega-flop Cowboys and Aliens, and Gonzalo López-Gallego’s found footage moon landing film Apollo 18 (some could argue that Green Lantern also belongs on this list). The exact reasoning behind this flood likely has something to do with the success of the earlier Transformers films, and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, but probably has more to do with a deficient of creative energy burning through blockbuster Hollywood. Chris Gorak’s Russian set The Darkest Hour, the eleventh of these films (released on Christmas) fits the mediocre mould set by most of these films ( Attack the Block notwithstanding), and actually might be the worst of a pretty bad batch (the only one I haven’t seen is Apollo 18).

Gorak is better known as an art director and production designer on A-list productions, including Fight Club and Minority Report. His directorial debut was a modest biohazard outbreak thriller called Right at Your Door. Right at Your Door is a flawed, overlong film, but is a pretty impressive debut, and displays Gorak’s skills with actors and melodrama. It’s a pretty suspenseful film too, which might lead us to believe he’d be moving on to bigger and better things. Unfortunately, despite the budget increase and wider release, The Darkest Hour is largely a step back, seeing this promising talent dealing in bland genre clichés. There are shadows of the moral complexities found in Right at Your Door, and the stark imagery is occasionally almost stunning, but he can only fill his movie with so many shots of actors wandering around the empty streets of Moscow before even the most patient viewer passes out from sheer boredom. The best I can really do is credit him for a whole lot of unintentional comedy, which wouldn’t have worked had he not taken the material so seriously. The ongoing joke surrounding the film as trailers started to be released last year was that The Darkest Hour was cheap, so cheap that it featured invisible aliens. At the low reported price of about $30 million, The Darkest Hour was quite cheap, and it is easy to assume the general lack of creature effects was largely responsible for this (there are some digital creatures, and they are among the worst I’ve seen in a decade, including any videogames I’ve seen in that period). Not to mention the fact that the film is entirely set in Russia, where producer Timur Bekmambetov likely gets cheap labour even cheaper thanks to connections he made while directing Night Watch and Day Watch (two of my favourite fantasy films of the last decade).

Darkest Hour, The (2D)
Screenwriter Jon Spaihts appears to be known largely for his unproduced science fiction screenplays, and has been hired by Ridley Scott to write this summer’s upcoming Prometheus. Theoretically, Scott saw something promising in one of his unproduced scripts, because this one is a dull mess of unlikable characters and overused invasion movie tropes. The alien threat is ill defined and their weaknesses often nonsensical. Characters constantly spout assumptions about the threat and are more or less always spot-on, which caused me to throw up my arms in frustration over and over again (they can see your energy signature, but can’t see through glass?). This might not be a problem based on the major leaps in suspension of disbelief inherit in even the best alien invasion films, but Spaihts’ script attempts to fill the low-budget space with his unrelatable characters arguing about their situation. Then, to keep the plot moving, he has them make incredibly stupid choices, which in turn lead not to any kind of imaginative slant on the genre, but more arguing, and more incredibly stupid choices. I had originally assumed the under 90 minute runtime meant I was in for a brief experience at least, but this story is so mind-numbingly monotonous I found myself taking breaks to maintain interest. I quite like lead actor Emile Hirsch, and don’t understand why he isn’t staring in A-list releases these days. Word has it that he fired his agent following the box office failure of Speed Racer (a vastly underrated film), and since then he’s gone from Oscar buzzed-actor (for Into the Wild and Milk) to appearing almost nowhere. His half-assed involvement in this sleeping pill of a movie is the most depressing element. Perhaps Oliver Stone can save his once promising career.

Darkest Hour, The (2D)

Video


The Darkest Hour was shot in digital 3D using Sony’s CineAlta F35 cameras, a system apparently known for its ability to mimic the look of 35mm film. Here in 1080p, 2.35:1 2D video the film looks largely perfect. Gorak and cinematographer Scott Kevan are clearly shooting with 3D in mind here and fill out the widescreen frame with information. There aren’t many close-ups either, leading to a sharp and complex look featuring deep-set details on just about every shot. The sheer quantity of background detail is quite impressive, and often even clearer than the human eye could capture on its own. Contrast levels are set pretty high, which is great for the deep black levels, but a small problem for white levels, which blowout on the brightest highlights and produce thin haloes on brighter hues especially. Despite the apparent efforts to exact the look of 35mm film, there’s generally very little in terms of digital grain or noise, leaving only these occasional haloes and blowouts to complain about. The film starts off pretty colourfully, dealing in natural skin tones, rich reds, and realistic cityscape hues, but once alien orbs start to appear the bulk of the colour is sucked out of the mix, leaving most warm hues largely desaturated to create contrast with the golden/orange ‘alien’ lights. The colours left over act as highlights against the nearly monochromatic backdrop, and are quite consistent and pure.

Audio


The Darkest Hour covers a lot of its budgetary shortcomings with fancy and aggressive sound design, and this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack never falls short of expectations. The stereo and surround channels are often busy with everything from natural city noise to surrealistic space noise as well as aggressive musical interludes. Even the relatively empty Moscow landscapes have an audible level of warm ambience and effectively realistic dialogue sound. The ‘alien’ attack sequences are the clear frontrunner moments for the track, including a whole lot of vibrating bass, and directionally enhanced ‘shattering’ effects. Workhorse composer Tyler Bates creates a pretty complex musical soundtrack, much of which even gets a solid surround channel response. Often the music turns to abstract alien noise which is wrapped throughout the speakers to a nice, round directional effect. Outside of Bates’ efforts Gorak includes a whole lot of loud Russian pop, techno and hip-hop numbers that rock the hell out of the LFE, and echo effectively throughout the surround channels.

Darkest Hour, The (2D)

Extras


Extras begin with a commentary track featuring director Chris Gorak by himself. Gorak approaches the track intelligently, and comes well prepared with information about the behind the scenes process. His tone is a little dry, but he’s consistently talking, discussing the production, the script, working with his cast and crew, and finds a nice balance between screen specific discussion and prepped info. Outside the tone, which he breaks away from on occasion with an amusing anecdote, Gorak’s problem is one of kissing up to everyone a little too enthusiastically.

Next up is Survivors (8:10, HD), a bombastically cut short film featuring more (unnamed) survivors of the invasion in Malibu, Tokyo and Jalalabad. This short discusses the alien physiology in greater detail, and despite some bad acting features generally more interesting characters and brief plotlines. This world-wide approach would’ve made a much, much better movie. The Darkest Hour: Visualizing an Invasion (12:10, HD) is a general EPK featurette featuring behind the scenes footage, preproduction animatics, storyboards, FX tests, concept art, and interviews with director Chris Gorak, producer Tom Jacobson, VFX consultant Stefen Fangmeier, VFX supervisor Dmitry Tokoyakov, and cast members Emile Hirsch, Joel Kinnaman, Rachael Taylor, Max Minghella and Olivia Thirlby, all of whom try to sell the concept of invisible aliens as something special. The disc is completed with five deleted scenes with optional director’s commentary (4:50, HD) and trailers for other Summit releases.

Darkest Hour, The (2D)

Overall


Once again, Darkest Hour is a boring, boring entry in 2011’s long list of alien invasion movies, so boring it may be the worst of a generally mediocre lot. Director Chris Gorak still has a twinge of potential, but I’m beginning to worry about screenwriter Jon Spaihts, who has subsequently written Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, which is my most anticipated film of this coming summer. This Blu-ray disc looks generally quite sharp and features an aggressive and effective DTS-HD soundtrack. The extras feature a decent directors commentary, a decent behind the scenes EPK, and a surprisingly fun extended universe short film.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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