The Darkest Hour is one of the few motion pictures that actually acknowledges the existence of herpes, and I applaud it for that. Not many other critics seem to share my sentiment. The film has a genuinely pathetic “11% Fresh” rating at RottenTomatoes, which seems to imply an almost biblical disaster captured on celluloid. With those low expectations in mind, you’d be surprised to learn that – on the small screen at least – The Darkest Hour is a pleasing, albeit generic B-movie experience. Clichés are prevalent, but are presented in the spirit of fun and buoyed by a handful of intriguing notions that make the Blu-ray, now available from Summit Entertainment, an enjoyable if brainless rental.
Chris Gorak’s film plays out like one subplot of an Irwin Allen, or more more accurately Roland Emmerich, ensemble disaster movie. A pair of young iPhone app entrepreneurs – Emile Hirsch (Speed Racer) and Max Minghella (The Social Network) – are on a business trip to Moscow when aliens invade the Earth. The twist, such as it is, is that these aliens are made of pure energy. Generally invisible to the human eye, and given away only by the power surge in electronics as they pass by, they have destroyed almost all human life on earth within days. Our heroes, and their love interests and one prerequisite jerkwad (Olivia Thirlby from Juno, Rachael Taylor from Transformers and our new Robocop Joel Kinnaman) embark on a journey through the ravaged city in the hopes of finding safety, or at least a group of survivors less screwed than they are.
The difficulties involved with telling an alien invasion story with invisible aliens – my god that sounds cheap, doesn't it – are offset by The Darkest Hour’s sometimes-impressive special effects, which at least give the film some sense of scale. But the threat seems diminished because aliens simply disintegrate their victims, giving the film a PG-13 vibe that’s hard to take too seriously by preventing the danger from feeling physical. What Gorak seems to have been after, however, was less a conventional desolation thriller and more of a primer for young geeks looking for new things to debate about. Much of the bland cast spends their time hypothesizing about the aliens’ motives, weaknesses and abilities, which plays half like a transcription from the writers’ room and half like a gang of junior high school students trying to win a “No Prize.” For a film about an all-encompassing alien apocalypse, the resulting tone is surprisingly charming, which I suspect many folks saw as a fundamental problem.
But if you can look past The Darkest Hours’ frailties you’ll find a goofy and fun low-budget sci-fi action flick full of ridiculous gadgets (the homemade microwave gun is a hoot) a handful of memorable action beats and an awkward sequel tease that feels like it was thrown together in less time than it would take to listen to a Ramones song. Clearly they thought they had something special, and while they were technically wrong, the affection the filmmakers had for the material does shine through even in the goofier parts.
The proof is in the digital pudding: Summit’s Blu-ray of The Darkest Hour – handsomely presented with a fine surround sound mix – includes a new short film, The Darkest Hour: Survivors, which actually goes the Irwin Allen route by presenting a handful of parallel stories of other survivors throughout the world trying to make a last stand against the unnamed alien menace. It’s an arch little short, but the approach prevents any of the many characters from overstaying their welcome, which the “Oh I Get It” segment with the American soldiers teaming up with the Taliban could have easily fallen victim to.
The other special features available, a short “Making Of” presentation, a handful of completely unnecessary deleted scenes and an informative, likable commentary track from Chris Gorak give the impression that The Darkest Hour is something bigger than the dud it turned out to be. If you can look past its failure to turn into a pop culture phenomenon – despite obvious attempts to make that happen – you’ll find a dorky but entertaining genre romp that’s just dumb enough to feel like the product of intelligent grown ups who wanted to make something they’d have dug as widdle kids.