Commitment to an idea or a tone can mean the difference between life and death for a movie. If a film has a ridiculous premise, but really attempts to bring that vision home with style and grace, that earnestness can make up for a lot. If a film has a good handle on a tone, it can make even the most out-of-left-field actions stand the test of credulity and deliver a really interesting and unique time. In terms of alien movies, Attack the Block knew this, as did Battle: Los Angeles. They rose above their rote premises to become something more through dint of hard work and determination and solid ownership of what they strove to be.
The problem is, for those two miracles to occur as they did in those films, a film really has to work for those moments and those aspects. It can’t spend part of its runtime being an uninspired (if still competent) film, and then attempt to shift gears violently in the home stretch. There is within The Darkest Hour a film that I would breathlessly tell me friends they have to see to believe. A piece of that film still exists. However, it exists at the end of an exercise in redundancy and cliche that starts off entertaining but becomes a bit of a slog.
Though to say that the first two-thirds of this film leave a bit to be desired is being less than forthcoming. In general, the problem lies in the pacing and characters. The film doesn’t seem to have a firm handle on the story’s most important aspects, or with the kind of story it’s trying to tell in general. This allows for tremendous amounts of wasted time in very short order. A whole character could be excised from this story without causing any kind of disruption to the narrative, and it would have in fact streamlined the story greatly.
Two young men go to Moscow to pitch their travel-based social networking software only to find that their idea has been sharked by a rival. To blow off steam they hit a club, where they meet a pair of American girls. The group hits it off when suddenly the lights go out. Outside, the crowd gathers to watch strange lights descend from the sky. When a police officer goes to investigate, he is suddenly vaporized, and the crowd scatters to try and save itself from a similar fate.
Fast-forward a week and Moscow is a desolate, empty city. Our heroes slowly tease out the ‘rules’ of the monsters they face. They are basically invisible. They give off electricity that makes lights and car alarms go off. They cannot be harmed physically, and sense people by their electromagnetism. However, all of this information takes far too long to cull, as it has to be sandwiched between awkward, ill-defined character building. Thus, the characterizations cannibalize the action, and the action cannibalizes the story. Attack the Block told a similar tale, but it used the action to build the characters. Sadly, when action hits for the first half of this film’s story, everyone turns into simpering, screaming mess free of agency or logic or character. They do stupid things seemingly for the benefit of facilitating another attack to drive the plot forward.
However, toward the home stretch, something magical happens. Our heroes have been drifting aimlessly, more or less, for a few days. Then they see a light in a building, and decide to go to it. From this point on, The Darkest Hour becomes infused with a manic, insane energy as we begin to get introduced to the Russian nationals who have begun to fight back against the luminous horde. Here the film finds a footing of boldly exciting action, over the top characters who live in sync with the action, and breakneck pacing that drives us toward the conclusion. None of these characters is ever given a back story, but that’s the magic of them. They are people, they are fighting, and they are awesome. No more information is needed for us to love them.
Had it moved more swiftly toward this parade of oddly compelling guerrillas the film might have achieved some kind of wild, unpredictable success. Had it taken some risks and broken some rules, it might have trimmed the fat of the story and given us a lean, campy, incredibly rousing time at the movies. As it stands, though, we only get a mediocre showing, with a bang-up finish.
It’s a shame, because the direction by Chris Gorak (Right at Your Door) is lightly stylish without being showy, and the action beats have a weird kind of shark-in-the-water flavoring to them. If the film makers had decided to create a non-stop action showcase, utilizing the oddity and novelty of their monsters with more relish and frequency, they might have been amazing. Had they just realized that the characters could be allowed to shut up now and then, we might have had something going here.
Interesting misfires are a particularly depressing breed of film. I see so much potential in this film that it breaks my heart that it couldn’t give me more. However, in spite of all that, I don’t find myself feeling the need to dissuade people from seeing The Darkest Hour. I feel as though the right kind of crowd will find it, and the right kind of person will engage with it. I honestly want my friends to see this flick just so we can talk about how awesome the last thirty minutes are, and then imagine what it would have been like if that energy had been in the whole time.
But, sadly, it is not to be. Instead of a full-throated recommendation, I’m stuck giving a very compromised sort of acceptance. Would I see it again? On Netflix, or on cable, definitely. In theaters? Maybe. Because even though I might dread the moments when it tries to make me care about its paper-thin American characters, I relish the thought of revisiting the looney, charming rogues gallery or Russian freedom fighters.