If you’ve seen the trailer, you’re already familiar with The Darkest Hour’s Big Emotional Moment: “We’re gonna fight the hell back!” In the annals of cinematic rallying cries, Braveheart rousing it is not, though it’s pretty well par for the course when it comes to The Darkest Hour, a dimwitted 3D sci-fi travesty directed by Chris Gorak and produced by Russia’s own master of the hyperkinetic, Timur Bebmambetov, the one and only reason the film’s action unfolds in Moscow. The Darkest Hour cribs its dopey premise, concerning invading alien balls of light with the nasty habit of reducing humans to ash heaps and bent, naturally enough, on world domination, from other, better alien-invasion films (read: any version of War of the Worlds). Indifferently structured, Jon Spaihts’s lame-brained script knows no narrative contrivance it doesn’t love and, what’s worse, blows its expositional load in the first 10 minutes, bringing together a quintet of cardboard cutout leads: Would-be website designers Ben (Max Minghella) and Sean (Emile Hirsch)—call them the Egghead and the Fuck-up—travel to Moscow to cinch a sweet business deal that sours when erstwhile partner Skyler (Joel Kinnaman) steals it out from under their nonplussed noses. Elsewhere, gal pals Natalie (Olivia Thirlby) and Anne (Rachael Taylor) have come to Moscow for no better reason than to see the sights. Sure, there’s some palaver along the way about Anne being a photographer, but it’s ultimately a characteristic as dispensable as the character herself.
The Darkest Hour’s opening moments relentlessly pummel the viewer with product placement: Starbucks and, especially, McDonald’s signs seem to infest every square inch of Moscow’s public spaces. Gorak shoots this sequence like a Ritalin-fueled glitz overdose—stuttering pan-and-zooms and ostentatious slow-mo abound—so that it comes across like a particularly annoying Captain Morgan’s ad. Because several characters deliver fortune-cookie-profound verdicts on Russia’s indigenous version of cutthroat capitalism, some viewers might be tempted to suspect a whiff of social satire, a hope deflated, if not deflowered, by Sean’s asinine summation: “Cyrillic looks like Klingon.” After an initial street skirmish, Sean insists: “I’m trying to keep my freak-out on the inside!” That’s just as well, since every time one of these Real World rejects opens their mouth, they deliver ridiculous, pseudo-snarky lines like the following exchange: “Where’d you ever get the idea for a plan like that?” “Shark Week.” A thankless task, delivering such pabulum, for actors that been put to better use elsewhere.
Then again, the native Russians, systematically shunted to the sidelines, don’t fare any better. Conceived as little more than a rogue’s gallery of plucky types, there’s Vika (Veronika Ozerova), the no-nonsense tomboy, Sergei (Dato Bakhtadze), a bearded, sweater-clad teddy bear who constructs microwave-emitting weaponry while singing to his electrical wire-wrapped cat, and the redoubtable band of brothers led by Matvei (Bekmambetov regular Gosha Kutsenko) patrolling Moscow’s deserted streets on horseback like a horde of tin-plated Cossacks. Matvei and the boys serve a dual function: They get to blow some shit up under the aegis of escorting our ragtag bunch of survivors to their final destination, and they’re encouraged to pay lip service to some faux-patriotic Fatherland love, but even these sentiments, obnoxious though they are in principle, are so bland and by the numbers that they’re too meek to chafe.
Once the shiny balls of light start dropping into the Moscow night, Gorak shifts gears to a more sober palette, mounting the awe-inspiring tableaux (like an airliner that’s crashed into a shopping mall) with clockwork camera moves and a requisitely throbbing electronic score, thereby leaching any efficacy from them whatsoever. Ballast like character development goes right out the window and into the icy Russian river that serves as backdrop for The Darkest Hour’s anticlimax. Gorak and Spaihts prime Sean for a third-act evolution into the last action hero, and that makes about as much sense as a fight staged on a runaway electric streetcar, which by battle’s end conveniently drops our hero and heroine off exactly where they need to be. The Darkest Hour’s negligible 3D effects (typically squandered in the first 10 minutes) combine with a complete absence of tension or suspense, and indifferently staged set pieces, yielding a tedious, inconsequential snoozer. In a year-end season stacked deep with worthwhile films, what possible incentive could there be for submitting to The Darkest Hour’s utter pointlessness?