Never a Matrix of Leadership When You Really Need It

So, The Darkest Hour hasn't exactly been a pop culture darling; two weeks after release it's still seven million dollars shy of earning back its budget, and it's apparently taken rather a drubbing in critical circles, as well. An action/adventure/scifi/horror movie released on Christmas Day, rather than the more usually appropriate 'somewhere in the high summer', it was always likely to suffer a bit of a beating for that rather perplexing studio decision.

And it turns out that said beating is entirely undeserved. The Darkest Hour is easily one of the most enjoyable, and most skilfully crafted, science fiction films in quite some time.

The poster, on the other hand...

One of the biggest complaints about the film surrounds the characters; they're flat, they're wooden, they lack depth or distinguishing characteristics. And honestly? It's not untrue. I went to see it with the lovely Madam Meagan and a mutual friend, Jena K, and none of us could really remember the names of more than one or two of the characters. They're strong enough archetypes, but they never really rise above being just that. That's not a flaw, however. The characters in The Darkest Hour are weak for the same reason the protagonist of a Harlequin romance is usually the equivalent of a plain and mousey housewife and the leads of so much YA fiction are ordinary, moderately-bullied kids who suddenly find themselves granted some special power or influence. The purpose of these characters is to serve as stand-ins for the audience, providing a variety of potential archetypes for the watcher to slot themselves into. And while that's a technique that's come into some disrepute lately, mostly thanks the Twilight's Bella Swan, it's still a perfectly acceptable stylistic choice, and an appropriate one here. You see, The Darkest Hour isn't trying to tell you a story about people. It's more or less uninterested in people, as distinct and particular individuals. No, what it's trying to do is make you feel, to tell a story through atmosphere, and in that way the characters are less 'independent individuals' and more a variety of emotional cues waiting to be called out for the experience of the viewer. The film, at least so far as I read it, attempts to do no more or less than evoke a series of strong emotional responses in the viewer. And I think it does so very well, actually.

The story is appropriately basic. Two pairs of Americans and a Swede are in Moscow when an alien force descends from the skies. The aliens either consume or block electricity, blacking out whole sections of the city and killing every cellphone in the area, and quickly display their hostility towards humanity. The largely-invisible and apparently-invulnerable assailants begin slaughtering everyone, contact with the aliens reducing a human being to a pile of ash, and the five characters hole up in a club's storeroom, waiting out the initial assault. Eventually they emerge to a Moscow nearly devoid of life, with aliens patrolling the empty streets seemingly at random, and decide (somewhat arbitrarily, but not unreasonably) to head for the American embassy. They're hoping to find survivors, or help, or a way home, and desperately avoiding the patrolling aliens, whom they can barely see and against whom they have no defence. It's wonderfully tense, reminiscent of the early section in 28 Days Later in which Jim wanders silently around an empty and brutalized London, and it becomes all the more macabre when one realizes that the blowing dust and grit swirling through the air are all that remain of the people of Moscow.

I'd almost describe The Darkest Hour as 'Independence Day, if it was done really well'. Like Independence Day, The Darkest Hour seems most interested in exploring things like fear, bravery, determination, cowardice and heroism. Both movies try to talk about how people act when the world, as they know it, has come to an end. Where Independence Day does this through the exhilarating spectacle of the full power and glory of the United States military, however, The Darkest Hour keeps the focus personal, on individuals doing whatever they can to survive, and even struggling to fight back against the aliens. At one point the characters come across an ad-hoc militia already feeling their way through anti-alien tactics, but where an American story would have them lionized as defenders of freedom and bold, larger-than-life heroes, here they're just people, people who refuse to either run or die, and so have no choice but to figure out some way to fight. Like everyone else in the story they stay comfortably human, bereft of the superstar charm of a Will Smith or the unbelievable competence of a Jeff Goldblum. There are no elite, hyper-capable heroes ready and waiting to save the day, here.
Just these schmucks.  Relateable, aren't they?

A word on the aliens. As an engineer, Jena K found the explanation of their motives and some of their properties dubious, to say the least. If you have that kind of background, the film may suffer somewhat, though probably no more than any other mass-market science fiction suffers. But the storytellers made what I think were two absolutely inspired choices that allow nearly any inconsistencies to be shrugged off. First, the humans never learn anything about the aliens beyond the most basic physical facts necessary to fight them. This ignorance allows any number of strange behaviours to be shrugged off, simply because we really have no idea why the aliens are doing what they're doing. They clearly have a goal they're pursuing, and they seem mostly logical about the way they go about it, but there are things they could do instead which they don't that seem obvious to us; by making the aliens entirely alien, the movie protects itself by keeping their reasoning utterly inscrutable, and thus somewhat beyond challenge. The second wise choice The Darkest Hour makes is this; at no point in the movie does anyone know what they're talking about. There are no experts, no labcoated geniuses who can provide word-of-god exposition, just people doing their best to figure out the aliens through what little they see of them. That keeps every explanation that is offered grounded in a certain uncertainty, and means you can never really take the humans' description of the larger issue of the alien invasion as gospel. Too many science fiction movies feel the need to have experts explain everything, usually with such laughably awful science that it drags the movie down. The Darkest Hour doesn't bother, because why the aliens kill dogs, or ignore the uninhabited planets of our system, or leach the power out of cell phones and light up bulbs as they pass isn't important. These things just are, and the human survivors have to adapt to it, or die.

Spoiler Alert: Most people aren't exactly the Borg when it comes to adapting.

And die they do. Obviously I won't spoil it for anyone, but I will say this; don't get too attached to anyone. There are no headlining stars in this movie, leaving it free to kill off anyone they please, and the movie takes full advantage of this freedom. You'll see some of the deaths coming because of the conventions of storytelling, but not all of them, not by a long shot. And that first shocking, 'they killed that character?!' moment does a beautiful job of passing on the feeling of fear these characters would be living under, constantly. You don't know how this story is going to end, any more than they do, because there is no star on the poster whose survival, along with a love interest and perhaps an adopted plucky child, is assured. There's nobody on the poster, nothing but an empty street full of the blowing remains of the dead, and the hostile, lethal touch of the invader.

Like I said; this movie is Russian.

 Faraday-cage Kitty agrees wholeheartedly.

Oh, and a note on the 3D. The film was shot with 3D cameras, so unlike hack-jobs like The Last Airbender or Clash of the Titans, the quality of the picture is still crisp and clear, and the film is only dark when it's supposed to be. That being said, I can really only think of one moment when the 3D was used for meaningful effect. If it's only available in 3D, don't let that stop you from seeing it, but if you have the choice, you might as well save the extra couple of bucks.

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