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By Brock Wilbur · January 4, 2012
There are few fantasies more relaxing than the Apocalypse.
Upon glimpsing the un-making of all existence, one feels a profound sense of validation for one's choices — or, should there be an inhabitable post-world, the Peter Pan–like wonderment of adapting to life as a child in a new reality. In either scenario, the slate is wiped clean, and the impact of your life is rendered null and void. The reverse It's A Wonderful Life. If you aren't dead, the wasteland doesn't ask you to use, or even pay off, that worthless degree. Your exes are incapable of calling, due to both the lack of electricity and their sudden vaporization. For the first time since the dream died in second grade, you can have whatever job you want, albeit between the two choices of hunter/gatherer. Freedom granted from the people we were, lives we've lead, and, if we're lucky, some element of spectacle that makes the whole thing worthwhile.
We should sell vacations to the end of the world. Relief washes over me just from typing on the subject.
I wrapped myself in that particular brand of lonely joy on Christmas morning while watching The Darkest Hour in a completely-abandoned Hollywood theater. Not completely devoid of human life: a girl became frustrated when she couldn't see the previews in 3D (despite the lack of any 3D trailers being screened) and left, a stand-out example of exactly the type I won't miss come Judgment Day. I was, however, missing my family. December 2011 marks the first holiday season I had not spent back in Kansas with them — or with my friends, who are traveling — leaving me alone in Los Angeles on my favorite day of the year. Leaving me to a matinée of the first blockbuster doomsday flick in 2012. Giant 3D goggles on my face. Jameson in my flask. Christmas spirit in my heart.
The Darkest Hour has a distinctly postmodern view of what the end of the world will probably be: a huge mis-step, and a head-scratching disappointment. While we crave zombies, or Jesus' return, or a self-aware artificial intelligence with designs on the eradication of humanity, it'll probably come down to some douchebag pressing the wrong button. And that's what this film feels like: some douchebag pressing the wrong button.
We open on Sean (Emile Hirsch) in a plane, playing Dead Space on his iPhone. Yes, filmmakers: up front, please remind us of an infinitely superior take on alien warfare. Sean and his best friend Ben (Max Minghella) are headed into Moscow to sell their social networking app for connecting young, attractive people with young, hip clubs, that would instantly become less hip once featured on some corporate "cool machine."
The flight attendant asks Sean to turn off his phone. Instead, he convinces her to admit the whole "interfering with the flight's electrical systems" thing is a load of bull. For an action-packed movie with uninteresting, unlovable characters (Emile Hirsch included), it is an odd choice to define likability and positivity as his only personality traits. That is to say, for one of the least interesting protagonists in recent memory, Sean manages to convince everyone he encounters to reverse their ideologies in a matter of sentences, based on this overwhelming likability that is only talked about in the abstract. Ben even comments on desiring Sean's level of positivity before giving in on another argument, which feels unrealistic coming from a genius and de facto leader, as if Hans Gruber from Die Hard waxed poetic about his desire to be as uplifting as, say, Forrest Gump. Nobody trades the bank vault for the box of chocolates.
They arrive in Moscow, which is comprised of McDonalds and Kreyashawn dubstep remixes, two great examples why our species should be hunted for sport. Or perhaps it was the studio's fear of showing a European city, worrying American audiences wouldn't feel a connection. "Without recognizable corporate sponsorship, I just see all those dead people as weird foreigners."
The social networking pitch-meeting is ruined when lame business foil Skyler (Joel Kinnaman) rips off their idea, and reminds them to look up NDA. Skyler is such a great name for a bad guy; why has no one thought of that? Also, if Max Minghella has an idea for a social network, it's gonna get ripped off. The two friends opt to drown their sorrows in a trendy Moscow bar, where they meet an American, Natalie (Olivia Thirlby), and her British friend, Anne (Rachel Taylor). Skyler also happens to be drinking here. Which is convenient, because it means they can hide together when space aliens start killing everyone, three minutes later.
Millions of glowing lights shower from the night sky into a blacked-out Moscow. Each light becomes an invisible energy field that can grab human beings and explode them into a PG-13 friendly mist of ash. These non-visible invaders chase the kids from the street, back to the the underground bar, and even manage to kill Skyler's girlfriend… when he sacrifices her out of cowardice. The group of five hides out in the club's basement for a few days until food runs out, then makes the decision to make a run for the American embassy. Ten seconds in the sunlight makes it clear this plan won't work, as the population is dead. But whatever. There's still seventy minutes to go. Even a bad plan is good for filling out the next act.
We hit a brick wall that I can sense will serve as a running theme throughout Filmpocalpyse: what does Apocalypsian dialogue sound like? In the opening twenty minutes, the writing dabbles in highly intelligent (sounding) jokes and one-off; little pithy comments in quick succession, and sitcom tête-à-tête, making the four "likable" mains seem verbose and guaranteeing great action-catchphrases later. Then, about the time the team emerges from hiding, it just goes off the rails. Refrains of "We're lost," "What happened?," "Oh my God!," and "Did you see that?" are the bulk of the remaining exchanges.
On one hand, it seems unrealistic. These four people have already sarcastically scoffed through a terrible day, displaying that, even under pressure, there is always fun to be had. (I'm positive that Sean thought the NDA was short for something with an asshole.) But on the other hand, it seems too realistic. In the treacherous case of global endgame, you become more economical with your words and sense of humor.
But where does realism end and lazy writing begin? Where do we leave behind the illusion of fear, and pick up the improvised lines of a big budget Blair Witch?
I'll repeat that these aliens are invisible. Invisible. As they travel, their field breathes electrical life into any devices nearby. It could have been clever in scenes where chases involve lights flashing, or car alarms going off, forming an interesting take on the horror genre in which illumination is frightening for inverted reasons. But the characters can't seem to remember that these aliens are invisible. More than once, the group is cornered because Sean knows an alien is out there, but he keeps poking his head out to look for it. WHAT ARE YOU EXPECTING TO SEE? Why does Ben ask what you're seeing? Either you're safe, or you're about to experience a terrible fatality. Either way, nothing much on the visible spectrum to help you out. Also, a pretty great way to save on CGI budget: "This shot shows an invading force of millions attacking the planet… but they're all invisible. Oh! Bodies turn to dust, so we won't require extras to play cadavers. And they turn to dust, so just take the blood effects budget and put that into marketing. Or drugs. Drugs are fine, too. Just saying."
The agonizing stupidity looms over their first direct interaction with an alien invader. Sean and Ben dart from cover for a police car left abandoned in the middle of a city street, in hopes of finding a better map. Then a stray dog near them explodes when grabbed by an electrical beam (dog explosions make audiences very happy, and I'm sure I'd be mentioning a walk-out at this point if I weren't the only person in the cinema). They hide behind the cop car, but can't stop themselves from going into the open to look. "Is it still there?" HOW WOULD YOU TELL? We see the kids from the alien's POV. Despite not sharing a homeworld or backstory, "alien vision" in Darkest Hour is basically the same as Predator from 1987. There haven't been any major advances in extraterrestrial-stalking technology, at least not in Hollywood. As the alien moves to investigate, Sean begins to slide under the vehicle. Ben even asks what motivates this bizarre behavior, and Sean replies, "It's better than nothing!" They trick the alien and it goes on about its commute to work.
While fear of the unknown can be a powerful thing, it's less effective when the oppressor's rules are poorly defined, and all the protagonist's undertakings, no matter the thought process, prove successful. Watch as Sean impersonates a shop mannequin and discovers the invaders can't see through glass. If they are unstoppable killing machines, that would be frightening. If they are unstoppable killing machines, and yet every random foil these kids stumble through defeats them, how did they obliterate our planet? I don't think that highly of humanity, but I know we're better than Emile Hirsch.
Here seems the appropriate point to mention the 3D effects. The only thing that ever flies at your face, that you even notice being 3D in nature, are the particle effects. As the populace was reduced to ash, there's dust and dirt and leaves littering Moscow, which blow in the wind and, in rare cases, relate to the movement of the aliens. Thanks to the giant RealD 3D headset covering my skull, I was able to experience a frighteningly realistic interpretation of watching boring people do boring things while dust blows in my face. Yeah, Darkest Hour is just like watching a baseball game. But shorter.
The American embassy is in rubble, and the survivors seem surprised, as if they truly believed patriotism and sheer American can-do spirit would have enveloped the building in a protective forcefield. It would actually work in this film, had Emile thought to try it (Their one weakness has been discovered! Quickly, sing the "Star-Spangled Banner!"). The douchebag guy notices guns and spent bullet casings littering the street, proving that guns have no effect on the invaders, so he grabs a gun and is killed shortly after while trying to prove, I assume, that he became a successful business mogul by irrationally rejecting context clues.
In the first of a long series of plot points borrowed from 28 Days Later, there's a pre-recorded military broadcast about a rescue point and gives a location. They seek shelter with a young girl who survived the attack and an eccentric electrician who has developed a microwave gun for fighting back. Because why not? They traverse the city and meet up with a horse-riding Vladimir Putin–type warrior whose gang of rebels have acquired a surprising number of rocket launchers. Sean doesn't want to help, but his overwhelming positivity fixes all that, and soon, they make it to the safety of a nuclear submarine. We get the Independence Day line, almost word for word, about getting on the wire to tell the planet how to bring these suckers down, and thinly-veiled promises of sequels to come.
Details about the aliens and their invasion emerge, only serving to make the story less interesting. While you may have originally thought these aliens were pure electrical energy, they're actually normal Grey Guy aliens in floating invisibility suits with force fields. Once that force field comes down, nearly anything can hurt them, as is proved by the finale where Sean throws the equivalent of a rock at them, and causes one to explode. Other critics might point out that two minutes previous, automatic gunfire took dozens of rounds to achieve the same result, but I'm not here to kick this movie while it's down.
Or maybe I should. See, the invaders set up elaborate mining towers to harvest the rich minerals of our planet. "We aren't what they came for," remarks one of the survivors, "We were just in the way." This is where my patience evaporated entirely. If they wanted to strip-mine a planet for resources, why would you pick the one planet in our solar system which supports life? Wikipedia quickly confirms we aren't exactly the mother lode of local planets. Do you know what we would have said if they bulldozed Jupiter, Hitchhiker's Guide–style? "Kudos, glowing friends. Making the neighborhood a little more exclusive. Between that and the excommunication of Pluto, we're now a gated intergalactic community."
Which retroactively makes all the people exploding in the first act completely unnecessary. As beings of pure energy, hunting humans to suck our life force made sense. As little robot miners, they sent an invasion force of millions to turn us to ash, one person at a time. First-year econ undergrads can tell you that business model is not efficient. We built weapons of mass destruction long before we dabbled in space travel. If you aren't interested in the surface, why leave roving bands of watchdog troopers to hunt survivors who pose no threat and aren't of particular use? At least go Matrix on them and tell us they used humans as batteries for their Glenda the Good Witch death bubbles.
The Darkest Hour resolves itself by spitting in the face of the solitary, rebirth-Apocalypse fantasy. While Sean gets to help lead the survivors in a fight to take back the planet (as my Christmas present for next year, please don't make that movie), Olivia Thirlby's character finds out via text message that her parents are still alive in America. Ignoring the plausibility factor (this is a movie about invisible electricity aliens), the truth of this moment stands in stark contrast to the brutally uplifting soundtrack. Early on, we learned that she had come to Russia without telling her family. Escaping. And in end-times cinema, with the promise of total escape, we're forced to accept that her family now represents nearly a whole percentage of the world's remaining population. I'd say The ____ Family are the 1%, but like all other characters in this film, she wasn't important enough to assign a last name.
Alone at the movies on Christmas, I was furious her family survived. That's not right. No people around, no signs of intelligent life, it should have been easy to identify with the emotional plight of Olivia Thirlby on screen. I did miss them, and more than any point over the holidays, I wished I could be with them instead of doing what I was doing. But there's the rub. From my position, I could hope they were at peace, but I would never have wished our reunion to occur here, in this place, with this film. My reality was bad. Really bad.
And shouldn't the same acceptance be true for those on screen? Thirlby was hunted for days, scavenging for food, in constant fear, and watching those she knew be slowly murdered. Who wants their parents to live that life? It's an element of the relief inherent in better apocalypsii: the calm for those who needn't suffer further. If her parents are like their daughter, they have no business in the wasteland. My parents would probably kick some alien ass, but still.
I'm a fan of director Chris Gorak, whose micro-budget feature Right At Your Door will inevitably be covered in Filmpocalypse, but he completely dropped the ball this round. I'll chalk it up to having one of his three credited screenwriters being the scribe of Dante's Peak, but it should have been off-set by the producing leadership of Russian mega-filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov.
The result is another in a line of embarrassing case studies, proving that the extra visual dimension cannot replace the depth of decent writing or acting. With a battle-cry thesis of "It's better than nothing," The Darkest Hour proves itself wrong. No matter what art we find ourselves producing in the coming wasteland, it will have ten times the heart and one-tenth the flaws. I've seen those men dressed as ladies performing cabaret in Escape From New York. A better use of my entertainment dollar? At least I won't be the only one in the theater.