American software designers Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella) are stranded in Moscow after a business deal goes sour and hook up with fun-loving girls, Natalie (Olivia Thirlby) and Anne (Rachael Taylor) at a local bar where a sudden power shortage draws their attention to hundreds of strange lights descending from the sky. To their horror these glowing malevolent beings start disintegrating everyone in sight. Hiding in the basement along with the cowardly Skyler (Joel Kinnaman), the group re-emerge several days later to find the city in ruins as they try to find a way home whilst eluding invisible electromagnetic alien invaders.
For some reason alien invasion movies are going through a minimalist phase at the moment, with The Darkest Hour joining the ranks of Skyline (2010) and Monsters (2010) in focusing on a small band of imperilled survivors instead of the grand scale global apocalypse detailed in films like The War of the Worlds (1954) and Independence Day (1996). Co-produced by Russian genre powerhouse Timur Bekmambetov, the action unfolds in hip, happening Moscow instead of the usual American locale. Early on the film conveys faint hints of suspicion about the dodgy business practices belying glamorous new Russia, but as things play out goes out of its way to depict all its Russian characters in a wholly positive, heroic light, leaving the token obnoxious jerk role to a selfish Swede.
Following their escape, the heroes meet gutsy Russian waif Vika (Veronika Vernadskaya, whose stilted line readings do her character no favours) and eccentric electrician Sergei (Dato Bakhtadze) who whips up an electromagnetic pulse gun to combat the invisible invaders before expiring, whereupon the group run into yet another band of tough survivalists. Production designer-turned-director Chris Gorak jumps headlong into action without properly establishing his characters then proves surprisingly cavalier about killing them off and moving swiftly onto the next set-piece. The film lifts some concepts from British science fiction writer John Wyndham, notably The Day of the Triffids with the aliens using eerie lights to distract the populace, but is less focused on ideas than action, only what action there is proves more akin to a modest made-for-TV movie for the Sci-Fi Channel than any big screen blockbuster.
The cast don’t appear especially enthusiastic about the material, with some justification given the preponderance of cheesy sub-comic book dialogue and outright silly scenes as when Sean eludes one alien by posing as a shop window dummy! Among the leads, Emile Hirsch phones in his performance while Olivia Thirlby went on to make more of an impact as telepath Anderson in Dredd (2012) and Rachael Taylor, veteran of Transformers (2007), who specialises in assertive heroines is miscast here as a weepy, hysterical type who bows out early presumably because she scored a better gig on the TV revival of Charlie’s Angels.
Gorak does a nondescript job handling the various suspense sequences and the briefly glimpsed CGI aliens are far from memorable. But while the story remains somewhat aimless, things do grow livelier towards the (annoyingly inconclusive) finale. On a strictly one-dimensional pulp sci-fi level, The Darkest Hour is at least watchable only more the kind of thing you might watch while channel surfing on a rainy afternoon than rent with any great anticipation.