DVD/Blu-ray Reviews: "The Darkest Hour," "The Iron Lady," "Sleeping Beauty," "We Bought a Zoo," and "War Horse"

The Darkest Hour (2011)
89 min., rated PG-13.

Given a Christmas day release, "The Darkest Hour" was dumped into theaters without even a gift-wrapped screening for the press. Though a "cold open" is usually the kiss of death, sometimes a gem can emerge from preconceived notions. Who knows, maybe it might be fun counter-programming to all the awards-season contenders crammed into theaters. However, by the time this film is fully unwrapped, it seems Summit Entertainment was actually doing everyone a favor, except for telling the filmmakers to go back to the drawing board. Between 2010's "Skyline," this year's "Battle: Los Angeles," and now this dopey, worthless apocalyptic sci-fi junk, Hollywood needs to put the kibosh on alien invasions. 

On their way to pitch a social networking site, software-designing friends Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella) arrive to Moscow, only to find that their arrogant Swedish partner, Skyler (Joel Kinnaman), sold them out. When they go out to drink off their disappointment and run into a female American, Natalie (Olivia Thirlby), and her fun-loving photographer best friend, Anne (Rachael Taylor), a power outage breaks up the fun. Strangely beautiful balls of orange energy begin falling from the sky, but as it turns out, the lights are really invisible aliens disintegrating any bystander within their reach. The four survive the first attack and find shelter, banding together until help, if any, comes. Once they leave their hideout, Sean realizes electrical devices react when the deadly lifeforms are nearby. Can these survivors' homemade light-bulb detectors keep them alive? 

The premise is a cool one, and there's a chilling nugget of an idea about cultural displacement, but it's been done before and should've been served in a much better film. Written by first-timer Jon Spaihts, the underdeveloped script pits its one-note heroes against alien forces that, despite blowing up human bodies into a speck of ash, are as threatening as killer lightning bugs with Predator-like vision. No time is really "wasted" on character-building scenes, all four given one or two traits and little backstory (i.e. Natalie left Mom due to a bad breakup) before being thrust into their dangerous situation. That would be fine if thereafter we learned more about these nonentities, but we don't, so it's hard to give two shits. There comes a time where you just root for the aliens. Exposition involving an emergency broadcast is conveniently laid out for the characters at the U.S. Embassy, but no origin of the antagonists is ever revealed. However, we do get expository lines like "They can see us but we can't see them" and "They came here with a plan." Gee, thanks for the memo! 

If the film's title merits any truth, this is "the darkest hour" for some young talent, saddled with thankless roles. Taylor is just a pretty face, Minghella has proven himself in good films, and Hirsch and Thirlby, in particular, are charismatic and have indie cred. Dialogue like "We need to stick together!" and "Listen to me!" are expected and competently uttered with a straight face (although a blooper reel might have proven otherwise). Lo and behold, none of the actors are enough to turn this enterprise around. They seem too smart to have been drawn to anything resembling quality in this script, but actors have to pay the bills too, and this project was probably worth it for a free vacation to Russia. 

Of course, the decent thing to do would be to give credit where credit is due. Art director-turned-director Chris Gorak paces everything at a brisk clip, pulls out some sleek shots of vacant Moscow streets, and never feels the need to shake his camera into a seizured frenzy. Other than that, most of the action feels cribbed from "Vanishing on 7th Street," and Gorak's editors (one of whose name is Doobie White!) use too many fades to black just when a scene is building. Also, the survivors jumping off the side of a getaway submarine is so cheesily staged and flatly shot in slo-mo. 

What just had to be an efficient programmer with a little rooting interest and some thrills can't even deliver that. It's not hateful enough to be terrible, but as one of the last films of the year, "The Darkest Hour" is an idiotic, unsatisfying waste of time and resources. As a Christmas alternative, just avoid this coal and watch "Attack the Block" for the first time, or even the tenth.

Grade:  D +

Grade:  C 

Grade:  D 

Also Available:

Grade:  B + 

Grade:  C +