By Jeannette Catsoulis
c. New York Times News Service
Based on the admittedly flimsy evidence of films like "The Darkest Hour," the best defense against invading aliens is to be as attractive as possible. Being one-dimensional doesn't hurt, either, even if that particular character flaw can be safely blamed on whoever is responsible for the screenplay -- in this case, Jon Spaihts. Given that he also is one of two writers credited on Ridley Scott's much anticipated 2012 film (and possible "Alien" prequel) "Prometheus," it is to be hoped that his lazy ideas were not equally apportioned between the two projects.
Because, really, how slovenly is it to use invisible aliens? If you're going to tease us with nothing but pinwheels of light for three-quarters of the film, you'd better have one heck of a reveal up your sleeve. But if all you have is the equivalent of exploding garden gnomes, then your problems are greater than a disposable cast and a filming style as flat as the color palette. As one cement-gray scene follows another, audiences may find themselves rooting for the aliens, if only because their sparkly cloaking devices at least offer visual stimulation.
Working from a story that has been knocking around for years, Spaihts and his director, Chris Gorak, send two Internet entrepreneurs (Emile Hirsch and Max Minghella) to Moscow to finish a business deal. When they learn that a Swedish opportunist (Joel Kinnaman) has stolen their idea, our lads head to a nightclub to lick their wounds and distract themselves with perky female tourists (namely Olivia Thirlby and Rachael Taylor). There the four -- and the scheming Swede -- will remain for the next few days as fireballs from outer space transform most of humanity into untidy piles of cremains.
While we wait for the core cast to be reduced to the requisite breeding pair, we have time to ponder the pointlessness of the Moscow setting, chosen primarily to allow the filmmakers access to stock Russian characters -- like the crazy inventor and the band of armed-to-the-teeth partisans -- and exotic architecture.
"The audience will enjoy it and will feel it's something new," Timur Bekmambetov, one of the film's producers, assures us in the publicity notes, but I wouldn't be so confident. The audience is more likely to be wondering why Bekmambetov, the sometimes inspired mind behind the supernatural pictures "Night Watch" and its sequel, "Day Watch," proved unable to inject life into this one.
Also a mystery is the apparent evaporation of Gorak's freshman promise. When, in 2006, he wrote and directed the electrifying no-budget thriller "Right at Your Door," you wondered what he might accomplish with more cash and greater resources. Now we know: Despite a title grandiosely borrowed from Winston Churchill, "The Darkest Hour" is yet another depressing failure of imagination. Even with a technological gold mine at his disposal, all Gorak can conceive of is destruction.
'THE DARKEST HOUR'
* Rating: PG-13 for violence and some language.
* Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.