Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Dark New Year

Okay, so my prediction of reviewing award-worthy films starting this week didn’t mean that I would do so right away. Sure, The Artist, Iron Lady, and War Horse are going to get my attention sometime in the next month, as we start getting ready for the Academy Awards and other award ceremonies in the near future. That’s a given. These films will either surprise me with their ingenuity or depress me with their overrated aspects, but doubtlessly they will go unforgotten by myself and whoever does get out to see them. That said, the first movie I’m reviewing this year is The Darkest Hour, a film that didn’t grab me because of an interesting cast, unique story or even its sci-fi leanings, of which there are precious few these days. No, I went to see The Darkest Hour based solely on one name: Timur Bekmambetov. Name sound familiar? Perhaps you have seen his famous Russian vampire films Night Watch and Day Watch. More likely you remember his 2008 major American release Wanted, starring Angelina Jolie and James McAvoy. Since that time, he has stepped further behind the scenes, spending more time producing movies for others than directing than creating his own films. Despite that, I’m often sure that when he takes on a project, it’s because there’s something about the story or idea that he loves, and I so would love to have another experience like Wanted or even the animated 9 when it comes to Bekmambetov’s name. I’ve yet to do so, but I figured The Darkest Hour would only last a short time in the theaters anyway, so if I was going to give it a shot, this would definitely have to be the time.

This is the future of mankind. Be very afraid.
When entrepreneurs Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella) find themselves screwed out of a Moscow business deal by a shady associate, they are trying to drown their sorrows when they run into two tourists, Natalie (Olivia Thirlby) and Anne (Rachael Taylor) stranded in the city. Just as the four are enjoying a good night in Russia’s club scene, power goes out throughout the city. That’s strange enough, but when what looks like an atmospheric disturbance turns out to be an invasion of invisible aliens who start turning humans into ash, the four find themselves trapped in a devastated Moscow, with the hostile aliens and their plan standing between them and being able to go home.

Here's hoping for a quick death for the star of Speed Racer...

Upon first review, you would think that The Darkest Hour is a cheap sci-fi film with little to recommend it. Well, that’s true, but that doesn’t mean such a movie has to be un-enjoyable. The film is definitely feels like a low-budget thriller, with the relatively cheap acting talent, gaping plot holes and murky camerawork lending nicely towards that idea. But a cheap thrill-ride can be fun when the film doesn’t dwell on what it ISN’T. When the film kills off characters by swiftly turning them into ash, the effect is seamless and cool, and the idea of the aliens themselves is inspired too. Though the film has caught some flack from reviewers for being unimaginative with their “invisible” aliens, I thought the idea of an enemy unseen by the naked eye as inspired, and for much of the film the tension of not being able to completely see the enemy worked out nicely for drawing the audience into those scenes in which they appear. There are some late-film scenes in which we actually can see the aliens themselves that show the weaknesses in the film’s CGI usage, and by far the scene in which we see what they look like is the most disappointing. That, plus some truly poorly-done imagery seen through the aliens' eyes, detracts somewhat from otherwise impressive SFX work, which of course means that the part of the film that HAD to be the best fails to do so.

The spunky kid has to live, but they won't make it easy!
That brings me to another area of contention with this film: the 3D. Going in, I wasn't expecting a cheap sci-fi thriller to be filmed in 3D, but then again there have been so many inappropriate titles that have used the technology that I really shouldn't have been surprised when the usher handed me 3D glasses to accompany my ticket stub. It's been a while since I've really ripped a film for being 3D, and just last year there had been only a couple of films I could stand in that medium. But the past year has been a source of solid 3D releases as studios finally have begun to understand what makes a GOOD 3D title in this day and age, and The Darkest Hour at least is closer to that end of the spectrum, with it's use in the film's atmosphere (mostly sifting dust) laying a nice framework for the story and drawing the audience more into the scenes. Unfortunately it doesn't do much more than that, and when combined with the unimpressive creature effects, the film as a whole manages to become less entertaining in the final act.

There are no big stars in The Darkest Hour; that means anyone is fair game
I almost feel bad to get on the subject of the characters and acting here, but for the sake of completionism let's get this over with. Basically, there are no characters worth mentioning here. Sean is a loser/nice guy who also moonlights as an annoyance to those who don't know him, a role that matches Emile Hirsche's appearance perfectly. Max Minghella, best known to this point for his supporting role in last year's The Social Network plays another cliche, as Ben is the more reasonable and responsible member of the pair. It's obvious that no effort was made to differentiate these heroes from any in film history, but at least these two have more personality than either of the film's female leads, as Olivia Thirlby's Natalie and Rachael Taylor's Anne are little more than panicked damsels in distress for occasionally hinted romance. It's so bad that director Chris Gorak brought in young Veronika Ozerova as a spunky teenage survivor to try and make up for it.

Well, he's still alive. Damn.
While setting the film in a post-invasion Moscow is indeed an inspired turn, the lack of decently compelling characters and a terrible final act ensure that you'll leave the theater with a not-nice opinion of your time spent. And yet I cant completely condemn The Darkest Hour for it's flaws. It's an underdog film, seemingly released at the same time as guaranteed blockbusters, for the sole purpose of failing miserably. And when you really think about it, the film is no worse than your impressions going in. Under the right circumstances and in the right mood, you can easily enjoy The Darkest Hour for the popcorn thriller it is, and makes for a nice reprieve from the supposedly high-class titles that have made themselves more apparent to you. I still wouldn't recommend you see it in the theater, but a DVD rental in a few months would be just about right.

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