Near the very top of a 5-star Radisson hotel in Moscow is where my introduction to the 3D alien invasion thriller THE DARKEST HOUR - and Moscow itself - takes place. It couldn't be more perfect; after all, I nearly have a 360 degree view of the city, and this is just a beguiling tease of a fascinating place that I'll delve into later on. Timur Bekmambetov (WANTED, the NIGHT WATCH films) and Tom Jacobson (MISSION TO MARS, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG) - the film's primary producers - are pointing out the various locations their movie visits. Not having toured the city, it's sort of an abstract show-and-tell. This high up, it's like they're pointing at a large map, mentioning places I don't know a thing about. That will be taken care of later though, as we're promised a detailed trip to the sites of THE DARKEST HOUR's major set-pieces, as well as face time with stars Emile Hirsch (SPEED RACER), Olivia Thirlby (JUNO), Joel Kinnaman ("The Killing") and Max Minghella (THE SOCIAL NETWORK). Director Chris Gorak (the 2006 indie thriller RIGHT AT YOUR DOOR) will also take a break to talk to us.
(As an added treat, we have recently been provided with a group of concept art images for your viewing pleasure; you'll see them throughout the article, along with descriptive captions.)
The iconic Red Square in Moscow is the scene of desolation in the post-alien invasion world of THE DARKEST HOUR
But this is getting ahead... Only a little while earlier, Jacobson and Bekmambetov were sitting amongst a dozen or so journalists (yours truly included) for a lengthy chat about their intense, you-are-there action sci-fi flick: How it came to be, how it compares to the other, similarly-themed invasion movies that are suddenly crowding the horizon, how shooting in 3D will make this an immersive thrill-ride and more.
So what's THE DARKEST HOUR about? I'll just let Mr. Jacobson explain the film's opening sequences to you. "These two young guys came to Moscow, something happens, and they go “Oh, what the heck? We are here in Moscow. Let’s have a good time. Moscow has a great night life.” So they find this club they go to. They meet these two young women there. Things are pretty happy. The music is playing. There are beautiful people around. Then all of the lights go out. “What the heck?” They all wonder outside and it’s dark. The entire city is completely pitch black. No one can start their car. Their cell phones don’t work. Nothing works. It’s pretty spooky. And there is this shimmering light and things are coming down to the ground. They think little sparklers. If it was America, it would be like the 4th of July. It looks beautiful, and then it’s not so beautiful. Then, there is devastating panic. The aliens start to do their work and our characters run back inside this club. And there is this big action scene, and it’s told in a very sense of immediacy."
(What Jacobson means when he says "the aliens start to do their work" can be gathered by the below image.)
The aliens in THE DARKEST HOUR are unlike any depicted on screen. Composed of lethal wave energy, they have the ability to shred apart human life
From there we're along for the journey as our four characters, along with disparate survivors they meet along the way - including a strange Russian scientist and a shady Swedish businessman - creep the dark streets of Moscow in search of an answer - any answer. Emile Hirsch and Max Minghella play the two young Americans at the center of the story, while Olivia Thirlby and Rachael Taylor portray the two young women they are fortunate enough to meet. Joel Kinnaman is the Swede who double-crosses our heroes at the beginning of the story, but is later forced to join them in their fight for survival. Yuriy Kutsenko takes on the role of Sergei, an unusual scientist who just might know how to fend off the fiendish assailants.
Eventually, it will become evident that this attack isn't exclusive to Moscow. "They find some things along the way," Jacobson says. "Some connections to the outside world. The point of view of the story is contained in Moscow. We learn as we go along that it’s not just Moscow that it has happened to."
An alien "seeker" emits a controlled lightning bolt to reel in its prey
As for the enemy, it soon becomes obvious that these lightning bolt-shooting villains are an unusual sort in the movies. Light is their friend, not darkness, which upends the standard "be afraid of the dark" formula in most thrillers. Jacobson says, "So the power goes out and it's because the creatures are electrical in nature. They interact with electricity. That's one of the things we're having fun playing with between night and daylight."
"The unique idea of this movie is because in usual if you are in darkness, you are scared," Timur Bekmambetov adds. "But this movie is the opposite. In darkness, you are okay."
Jacobson continues: "There would be no power in here. There would be no lights on. If an alien came through, you might see a little shimmer. You might see some sparks. They might blink in and out through a little ripple in the air and these lights would flicker."
The group of survivors meet up with eccentric Russian scientist "Sergei", who has outfitted his apartment as a giant Faraday cage, providing protection from the aliens.
The aliens are invisible "90 percent of the movie", Bekmambetov says, but Jacobson mentions that even after they're revealed, "there's some mystery". He goes on to talk about how these electrical extraterrestrials might be avoided: "There's a fantastic heroic Russian character in the center of the movie that they come upon who has discovered some nature of the aliens just through testing. Through traditional scientific method. He's built a Faraday cage. Who knows what a Faraday cage is? It's a cage of wires that no electricity can penetrate. You can be inside a Faraday cage and someone can shoot a bolt of lightning at it and it dissipates in the cage. So he's built one of those and is using microwave science."
Sergei's cat is also outfitted with a mini-Faraday cage
Noting that the film will ultimately aim for a PG-13 rating, Jacobson warns that while we shouldn't expect blood and guts, the film will be scary and action-centric. The word "grounded" is also thrown around quite a bit (perhaps ironically, considering the film's electrified goings-on). "It’s an action movie. I mean, it’s an action-thriller. I guess what we mean by 'grounded' is from an emotional point of view, from a sort of character point of view. That you want to believe that these characters are really going through it like an audience would go through it. But it’s a ride from the opening action sequence. It’s a combination of action and suspense."
Jacobson went on to address the 3D nature of THE DARKEST HOUR, as well as how the gloriously picturesque Moscow figures into it. Understandably, he's quick to point out that this isn't going to be one of those fuzzy, post-converted messes audiences have been subjected to of late: "We're using 3D, which we think is important to the movie. It was an important decision. But we are shooting in 3D. It's not being converted. We're using 3D as a story element in terms of an immersive quality. Moscow is very photogenic and our director, Chris Gorak, when he came here, it was very important for him to find locations and to capture this city that felt like you were really embedded in it, but also had scale and scope. Of course we shoot some of the icons locations like Red Square, but certain other places that you might not know as a foreigner or as a tourist. But the look is very unique to Moscow."
A close-up of the alien "seeker bolt"
The producer is sure to let us know that we shouldn't expect a ton of the cheesy 3D gimmicks typical for the format, such as objects hurled at the audience. "It’s not gimmicky like that. I mean, there will be some effects He’ll use it judicially so there will be, like, one moment because of the nature of the visual effects of the movie. But as I said, it’s meant to be grounded, real, and suspenseful."
An alien tower, whose function is central to the mystery of the aliens' motivation for taking over our planet
For the tech geeks out there who are interested in the 3D machinery being used on THE DARKEST HOUR, Jacobson helpfully discussed the system they're using. "We're using a rig called Element Technica. The rig is, like all 3D systems, two cameras. They represent the eyes, the left eye and the right eye. Pace works in the same way. We just made the decision based on availability and a choice that our camera guy made called Element Technica. It's through Panavision and the cameras are Sony F35 digital cameras, which are state of the art. They're about a year or two old. We have two of those rigs and two called P1 rigs, which is another, smaller, lightweight camera that we use for steadicam. You'll see when you come to the set that it's a huge, complicated system. The camera looks like a Transformer because it weighs about 200 pounds."
Bekmambetov sees the 3D as being quite beneficial to this particular tale. "3D for suspense movies is very effective. That is what I have learned from this movie. In 2D movies, it’s more, like, narration. It’s the director pushing you along and telling you the story. In 3D movies, it’s the director inviting you into his world and you are the traveler."
A seeker alien attacks Olivia Thirlby & Emile Hirsch on a runaway trolley train.
Before long, Jacobson whips out his iPad and offers us a special treat: the previz (an animated storyboard) for the alien intruders' big entrance, which he described earlier. Without giving too much away, we see a great big ball of electrified light descend upon a Moscow street. People stand in awe of the mysterious glowing orb as it lazily hovers above the ground. A Russian cop hesitantly approaches the "lightning ball" (which is the "technical" term for it) and reaches out toward it. This, naturally is a bad idea. The cop is instantly sucked into the ball and shredded. Only a shoe is left behind. To elaborate, it's like he was fed into a spherical woodchipper... (See concept art of the alien's POV below.) His partner is obviously freaked; the man draws his gun and fires at the orb. All for naught, as the bullet simply disintegrates upon touching the ball's electrical shield. Chaos is certainly about to ensue, but we're not privy to any more...
Life forms are illuminated by the faint electrical impulses in the body's nervous system. This is a pre-vis look at how the aliens see humans.
"We did a lot of research, just to ground the science into lightning effects and ball lightning," states Jacobson. "Sort of unusual effects that have never been explained. To help us design how the aliens interact from some of the visuals in it."
If you think all of this "ball lightning" talk is mystifying, read this little bit of scientific info: Ball lightning is a proposed atmospheric electrical phenomenon of which little is known. The term refers to reports of luminous, usually spherical objects which vary from pea-sized to several meters in diameter. It is usually associated with thunderstorms, but lasts considerably longer than the split-second flash of a lightning bolt. It is presently unknown whether these are actually related to any naturally occurring phenomenon. Scientific data on natural ball lightning are scarce. The true nature of ball lightning is still unknown. Until recently, ball lightning was often regarded as a fantasy or a hoax, but some serious scientific discussions and theories have attempted to explain it.
No, I didn't conjure that all up myself, the helpful folks at Summit Entertainment provided it for me, along with the following photos and sketches depicting the phenomenon. This is very real, and if you're interested in learning more, head on over HERE to see some startling videos.
You'll also want to read this About.com entry about ball lightning. Some "X-Files" stuff is afoot, for sure, and it's not just relegated to THE DARKEST HOUR.
Naturally, with so many other alien invasion-themed films hitting the multiplexes every few months, the question of whether or not they were conscious and/or concerned about their competition is raised to the producers.
Bekmambetov offers this: "We can’t think about it. We just have to make a movie. Make it good, emotional, and impressive. Then, we will see. How can you build a strategy when there are six hundred people producing movies at the same time in different cities all around the world? If you try to plan and manipulate you will be stopped like a centipede. You can not move. Instead, you will start to think about how you can move your legs."
Jascobson follows up. "We think that our movie is very unique, and it’s our movie. Our job, is to be competitive with ourselves to make the best movie. The effects, the action, the characters, the drama, and the visual effects – we feel pretty good about it."
The survivors meet up with a group of tough Russian soldiers on horseback, led by Matvei
The world will get to experience the drama and effects when THE DARKEST HOUR unleashes its lightning on December 23rd.
We're not done, though! There's much, much more I have to share from my visit to Moscow. Stay tuned as I roll out interviews with the cast and crew, as well as dish on the wild scene I saw filmed at one of Russia's most distinguished buildings.
The theatrical trailer for THE DARKEST HOUR