Despite a North American release date that suggests dumping rather than counterprogramming, “The Darkest Hour” turns out to be a modestly inventive and involving variation on a standard-issue sci-fi doomsday scenario. Genre fans should enjoy this technically well-mounted U.S.-Russian co-production, which Summit opened Christmas Day without press previews, though it’s unlikely they’ll turn out in sufficient number to sustain much of a domestic theatrical run. Fox may fare better with international release, particularly in Russia and other markets where the involvement of Timur Bekmambetov (“Night Watch,” “Wanted”) as producer (alongside Tom Jacobson) will be more of a selling point.
For Western audiences, the rote familiarity of scripter Jon Spaihts’ premise — after extraterrestrial invaders decimate humanity, resourceful survivors flee and fight — is neatly counterbalanced by the exotic unfamiliarity of the pic’s Moscow setting.
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Art director-turned-helmer Chris Gorak (whose debut feature, “Right at Your Door,” marked him as one of Variety’s 10 Directors to Watch in 2006) makes effective use of iconic locales throughout the Russian capital, especially during scenes in which five or fewer survivors race through an eerily unpopulated Red Square or warily make their way across an empty Patriarch Bridge. The overall sense of desolation is all the more pronounced in the 3D version, as lenser Scott Kevan exploits greater depth of field to underscore the terror and disorientation of lead characters who are, quite literally, strangers in a strange land.
Two would-be Internet entrepreneurs, Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella), journey from the U.S. to Moscow to promote their new website, only to find Skyler (Joel Kinnaman), a Swiss wheeler-dealer, has stolen their idea and investors. (You’d think Minghella might be savvier about such things after “The Social Network,” but never mind.) Bitterly disappointed, they opt to drown their sorrows at the trendy Zvezda Nightclub, where they fortuitously connect with two lovely tourists, Natalie (Olivia Thirlby) and Anne (Rachael Taylor).
Not so fortuitously, however, the four travelers are in the wrong place at the right time as thousands of extraterrestrial invaders descend from the night sky and proceed to vaporize all humans in their paths. The four leads and Skyler take shelter in a secure basement, emerging days later to discover almost all living creatures have been blasted into dust and all power sources consumed by the unfriendly visitors. Without electricity, phone service or even functioning automobiles, the survivors make their way across Moscow to ascertain just what the hell is happening and how they can escape the besieged city.
“The Darkest Hour” is most effective in its first half, as the survivors only gradually suss out the nature and scope of the invasion force while maneuvering through a deserted Moscow. Time and again, Gorak ably generates alternating currents of suspense and excitement whenever the normally invisible aliens betray their presence by inadvertently powering up light bulbs, cell phones and other dormant devices.
The second half relies more heavily on traditional action-adventure tropes, with the introduction of a plucky teen scavenger (Veronika Vernadskaya), an eccentric engineer-turned-inventor (Dato Bakhtadze), and Matvei (Gosha Kutsenko), a crafty technician who rides a heavily armored horse while leading a small ragtag army against the invaders. A definite plus: Kutsenko, an alumnus of Bekmambetov’s “Day Watch” and “Night Watch,” cuts a dashing figure — think Mad Max as soulful Russian hero — while stealing every scene that isn’t bolted to the floor.
Pic skirts perilously close to silliness on more than one occasion, but it’s pulled back from the brink more often than not by the disarming sincerity of its performances. That helps a lot, particularly when Hirsch has to appear dead serious while wielding an improvised weapon that looks an awful lot like the artillery brandished by the Ghostbusters.
Various sources indicate a longer version of “The Darkest Hour” will be available for foreign and homevid release. But the 89-minute version that opened Christmas Day seems appropriately brisk and streamlined, despite a certain anticlimactic feel to the final scenes.