The Darkest Hour (2011)

(Sight & Sound, BFI)

Despite receiving many scathing reviews, the sci-fi thriller The Darkest Hour is a capable, sometimes suspenseful, alien-invasion thriller for three-quarters of its length, before its belly-flop ending does its best to ruin the film. Until then its alien invaders are effective, invisibly haunting dead cities, their electrical auras triggering car alarms, lighting up streetlamps, and making mobile-phones ring. Like hungry ghosts, the aliens yank people into nothing. Their victims explode into dustclouds in the pulpish sci-fi way pioneered in Joseph Newman’s film, This Island Earth (1955).

The Darkest Hour is directed by Chris Gorak, who previously made the compact paranoia piece Right at Your Door (2006), in which Rory Cochrane skulked away from dirty-bomb fall-out in his sealed house. The Darkest Hour has an empty city to play in, but it still feels like a small film with few characters. At the outset, they’re visiting Moscow for business or pleasure. The opening scene is set aboard a plane when the lights fail. It’s a false scare, but it’s also a rather good “mundane” illustration of the ground-gone-from-underfoot panic that all alien invasions strive for. The film is far more enjoyable when the characters are blindly terrified than when they learn (laughably fast) to strike back.

When the aliens arrive, the sight of glowing golden puffballs falling from the night, delighting unsuspecting crowds, is darkly wonderful. Having escaped the massacre of mankind, the survivors are comprised of Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild, Speed Racer) and other nubiles, who run round a depopulated Moscow. There are echoes of Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2003): the morbid glee in exploding people into dust and rags, and a moment where the characters find a dead aeroplane embedded in the tiers of a shopping mall.

However, the film draws more on John Wyndham’s book, The Day of the Triffids (1951), with its monsters playing hide and seek in a dead city. The film virtuously infers massive off-screen battles from what the characters see. There are walls battered with bullet holes, littered guns and bullets on the ground, thick layers of wind-blown ash, and, of course, no corpses. Director Gorak has many art direction and design credits, from Fight Club (1999) to Minority Report (2002.)

Midway, the film descends to acceptable hokum, wheeling on a plot-device mad scientist (and wheeling him off as fast), before sagging to down to inanity. There are efforts to strike a serious note (the shell-shocked youngsters realise it’s advisable to say their goodbyes in advance, in case there’s no time later), but the film squanders chances to kill the “wrong” characters or break formula, like Cloverfield (2008) or Monsters (2010). The aliens are dispritingly reduced to dull videogame sprites, and the last minutes are indistinguishable from a parody of bad Hollywood sci-fi.