Recently pushed from its original August release date to December 25, Summit Entertainment’s The Darkest Hour is a 3D alien invasion movie that takes place against the backdrop one of the world’s most fascinating cities – Moscow, Russia. Directed by Chris Gorak (Right at Your Door) and starring Emile Hirsch, Max Minghella, Olivia Thirlby, and Rachael Taylor, the film follows the four central characters as they navigate the ravaged landscape of the city while attempting to evade the deadly, invisible aliens that are intent on hunting down and annihilating the world’s remaining humans.
Back in September I was flown out to the Russian capital to have a look at the set and interview cast and crew, in the process experiencing a captivating city I wasn’t sure I’d ever see in my lifetime. In the first part of our visit, we spoke with producers Tom Jacobson and Timur Bekmambetov (director of Night Watch, Day Watch, and Wanted) during an extravagant lunch at the top of one of Moscow’s most historic luxury hotels.
Also included in this section of the report are materials related to the phenomenon of “ball lightning”, a scientifically unexplained occurrence that features heavily in the alien invaders’ method of destruction.
See inside for the full skinny.
I fly into Moscow from Detroit via Frankfurt, and I’m sick as a dog. I’ve been struck by one of the worst cold & flu combinations I’ve suffered in ages, and I feel like I’m dying. It’s as if my ears are going to explode with every descent to the tarmac – an excruciating build-up of pressure in my head, knuckles white as I grip the armrests and try not to scream. I’m blowing thick ribbons of green, black and yellow snot into napkins and tissues and scraps of notebook paper.
It doesn’t matter where I am – sitting in a plane, standing in line at the airport, huddled inside a bathroom stall, riding in a taxi, lying in a hotel room bed – the mucus is everlasting, clogging up every passage, crowding around my skull as if attempting to find an entry point. Worming its way through my body like some living parasite.
On the forever cab ride from the airport our driver, who looks about 15, darts in and out of traffic like he’s got nothing left to lose, and maybe he hasn’t. He almost hits a pedestrian at one point and I can feel the nausea rising in my throat. Outside, the air is dense with smog. Car horns honk, ceaselessly. Next to me in the car is a very friendly British journalist whom I’ve just met, and I try to make conversation even as I fear I might puke on his shoes at any moment.
But I should back up here, because I’ve neglected to mention customs. When I got off the plane after around 15 hours in the air – miserable, unable to sleep- I was greeted by a wall of people standing in a small white room, pushing their way to one of the small windows at the front. I could only breathe through one nostril. My ears were horribly plugged from the pressure of landing. They crackled strangely but wouldn’t clear.
The bustle around me sounded as if it were taking place underwater. I blew my nose, over and over, into shredded, balled-up tissues that were well past the point of usefulness.
Two pretty American girls nearby spoke glorious English as they slowly worked their way to the front. I latched onto them for the sense of familiarity they offered. I listened in on their conversation, if only to focus on something besides my misery.
One was a bit larger and more outspoken, blonde. She spoke in a high voice and seemed a bit wild – the leader of the two, confident and vivacious, but also a little insecure. The other girl was thinner and taller and healthier-looking. She had light freckles, I think, and narrow, mysterious eyes. She was calm and soft-spoken. I pegged her as an athlete – soccer, or basketball, or volleyball…or maybe all three. She could’ve been Amanda Knox’s sister.
I got jostled around by the crowd, all of them fighting, surging toward the front. A little boy navigated his way through the mass of bodies like a motorcycle driver during rush hour, darting in and out, his mother rolling her eyes on a cell phone as she paid him no mind. She spoke in clipped Russian to someone, and she laughed, even as her son disappeared into the crowd.
I remember thinking what a horrible mother she was. Disgusted at the way she neglected her child. When he reappeared later he showed her something he’d found, but she couldn’t be bothered. She gave him a wan smile and patted him lightly on the head, and he ran off again, swallowed up again, by the crowd again.
I don’t know quite how it happened, but I soon began to notice that people who had once been behind me were now four or five spaces ahead of me in the tangle. How had they managed that? What was I doing wrong? I could feel the walls closing in, the unerring whiteness, crushing me.
What a horrible, awful, vicious, primal, disgusting country, I remember thinking to myself during the car ride, as I could feel the bile rising. I was sure my British companion could sense these terrible thoughts, as the color drained from my cheeks. I leaned my head up against the window, its cold hard surface cruelly boring into my left temple. I told myself I wanted to die, and in the haze of my sickness I actually meant it.
We pulled up to our hotel, the historic Ukraina, located on the waterfront of the Moskva River. Now officially known as the Radisson Royal Hotel, it is one of the “Seven Sisters”, a group of Moscow skyscrapers built in the “Stalinist style” of architecture – Gothic, Baroque, foreboding, all buttresses and spires. The “Radisson” sign, something I’d grown used to seeing jutting above freeway off-ramps and attached to square, personality-free structures, contrasted awkwardly with the artfulness of the building’s design.
Not that I could be bothered to care much at the moment. I felt like death warmed over. I just wanted to go home, away from his crazy, alien place and into my own bed, in my own room. I wanted for someone to take care of me. Serve me breakfast in bed. Curl up against me to soothe the ache settling into my bones.
My companion and I entered the gargantuan five-star lobby, the tile floor spread out in front of us like some demented indoor prairie. Crystal chandeliers glistened off of and marble staircases and Grecian columns. High above us, a magnificent ceiling fresco beamed down an image of pastoral beauty.
It soon became apparent that we were in the lap of luxury. Uniformed hotel staff approached us at least three or four times as we made our way across the enormous room, offering to help us with our bags. We declined, over and over. All we needed was to find the check in desk, which felt miles away.
When I entered my room, I had nothing on my mind but sleep. I didn’t shower, I didn’t brush my teeth. I threw down my bags, downed a jar of wasabi peanuts sitting on the dresser to clear out my sinuses (oh, glorious relief), and crawled under the covers of the bed, which looked like something out of one of those Eloise books all the little girls read.
After blowing out all the mucus I could and swallowing several pills to ease the constant ache, I drifted off almost as soon as I laid my head upon the satiny pillows…
I didn’t wake until lunchtime the next day, when we were scheduled to dine with producer Timur Bekmambetov, the visionary Russian filmmaker best known in the U.S. for directing the American action movie Wanted with Angelina Jolie. We took an elevator up the top floor of the hotel, high above the city, and were greeted by a massive spread of food and drink. A Roman feast, though one I would likely have trouble fully appreciating given the nasty bug still working its way through my system.
Nonetheless, it was clear that no expense had been spared. Waiters scurried about, refilling glasses and serving up more food than we could ever possibly consume, bringing out plate after plate of strange Russian dishes.
When he arrived, Bekmambetov took a seat at the center of the table. With his full beard, rotund physique, rosy cheeks, and pleasant demeanor, he was like a Russian Santa Claus. Joining him was Tom Jacobson, best known as the producer behind several hit ’80s John Hughes comedies including Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Uncle Buck, and Christmas Vacation.
The two men stood in stark contrast to one another – big, huggable bear Bekmambetov on one end, diminutive, nerdy-looking Jacobson on the other. They could’ve been a slapstick comedy pair from the 1930s, chasing each other around tables and fighting over ingénues.
Over lunch, the questions began. One journalist asked about the Moscow wildfires that had succeeded in shutting down production on the film for several weeks near the start of principal photography.
“We just couldn’t believe how bad it got,” said Jacobson. “And then one day it got so bad that you couldn’t see 100 yards down the street. Then it started getting into the hotel. Smoke was in the corridors of the hotels. It was on [the sound]stage. You could literally see it. Even though our stage was air conditioned, you could see it in the sets. And it wasn’t the cameraman putting smoke in. It was the country on fire…. We scrambled really quickly and within three days flew everybody out of town and just watched it from afar. Because no one really knew. They didn’t know how to fight the fires.”
Luckily the rain came to help put out the flames, and the Americans were flown back to pick up where they left off. “Even now, the government is taking credit that they conquered the problem,” said Bekmambetov, speaking in thickly-accented English. “But in reality it’s just rain.”
Bekmambetov went on to describe how the unique Moscow setting is utilized to play upon the sense of dislocation that comes from finding yourself in a strange country, far from home.
“It’s a story about an alien invasion,” he said. “[But]…it’s a metaphor for the foreigners and from the beginning of the movie, American boys feel themselves like aliens here or they feel like Russians are aliens. There’s misunderstanding or miscommunication. Then when the real aliens appear, together [the Russians and Americans] have to fight to survive.”
“Two young American guys, Emile Hirsch and Matt Minghella,” said Jacobson, chiming in. “They’re here for a business reason, but…right at the beginning of the movie, they get cheated. They’re here to launch a website and they think they have investors, but they’re young guys out in the big bad world. That doesn’t go well and then they meet these two young women, Olivia Thirlby and Rachael Taylor, who are here, traveling. And then the world ends.”
In 3D, no less.
“There’s two sides to it,” said Jacobson of the format. “One is sort of a subtler side which is what we’d call immersive. You put yourself into the environment. As we said, there’s a scene that’s shot on Red Square where it’s completely empty. It’s after the invasion and the city has been depopulated. Our two guys only see one or two people as they go. It’s very spooky. …And part of it is a huge action component. The movie is an action thriller. Those scenes are very tense. Then there’s a visual effects side to the movie where our characters interact, usually not to good effect with them and the invaders. Those effects in 3D will be amazing.”
“In 2D, the audience has to be more creative because you only see these colorful shadows on the white screen and, in your mind, you have to create the world. …But in 3D movies, with the glasses, you don’t have to imagine the world. You are already there,” said Bekmambetov, sounding suspiciously like an American studio executive (though he’d later contradict himself by telling us he enjoyed Avatar more in 2D than in 3D). “It’s kind of corrupting the audience’s imagination because you don’t have to imagine. …We didn’t understand what 3D meant for us and how it would change everything. It’s the same thing that happened during the 16th century when painters created perspective. Before that, it was more regiment[ed] and symbols. Then, they created the illusion of the real world, and it becomes a big deal. It changed everything.”
To bring their vision to life, the producers chose Chris Gorak, a former production designer whose first film as director was the 2006 Sundance selection Right at Your Door. The small-scale disaster film, about a couple’s struggle to survive after multiple dirty bombs are detonated in Los Angeles, was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and later picked up by Lionsgate for $3 million.
“We met a lot of people, [but we] just loved what Chris had to say for a lot of reasons,” said Jacobson. “He had very smart things to say about the story and the characters. ['Right at Your Door'] is really grounded in reality. It’s scary and it had scale in a really interesting way for a little movie. …[And] he comes from a visual background. So his sense of being able to bring that in and being able to tell a visual story we were very excited to have. He’s doing a fantastic job and we think he’s going to have a terrific career. And [he] deserves it.”
According to Jacobson, the invading aliens are “creatures of electricity and electromagnetism” who cause a massive power outage around the planet when they land. Their manipulation of the world’s energy supply imbues the story with an interesting twist that is 180 degrees out from films like Pitch Black and this year’s Vanishing on 7th Street – films where the characters need to stay in the light to stay alive. In The Darkest Hour, this idea has been flipped on its head.
“The unique idea of this movie is because [usually] if you are in darkness, you are scared,” said Bekmambetov. “But this movie is the opposite. In darkness, you are okay. Because of the aliens, they all carry lightbulbs and if they are coming, you see the light. In this case, if you are in darkness, it means there are no aliens around you. But as soon as you see the light. …The lamps mean they are coming. All the characters wear bulbs. If the bulbs start to light, that means that aliens are coming. It’s how they protect themselves.”
Indeed, this detection using light sources is key to the main characters’ survival, particularly given that the aliens are invisible for, according to Bekmambetov, “90 percent of the movie”.
“They’re revealed near the end and even then, there’s some mystery,” said Jacobson of the extraterrestrial invaders. “They react very fatally with the people around [them]. They’re pulled apart in a very dynamic way. …It has to do with an electrical interaction. And then they come, as Timur said, to trigger electrical responses. There would be no power in here,” he said, referring to the room we were sitting in. “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.”
“All the mobile phones would start to ring,” chimed in Bekmambetov.
So do the aliens actually want something, or have they simply come to destroy?
“There is a reason,” said Jacoboson. “They want something and it’s pretty simple.”
It seems to me that a lot of aliens in the movies come to this planet for water…, one journalist suggested.
“Or girls,” joked Bekmambetov. Everyone laughed at that.
Following the invasion, the central foursome soon receive help from a fellow survivor – a Russian man – who through scientific testing has been able to partially figure out how the aliens operate and designed a shield of sorts to defend against them.
“He’s built a Faraday cage. Who knows what a Faraday cage is?” asked Jacobson, as if conducting a high school science class. “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. There’s one theory behind ball lightning that has to do with electricity vaporizing silicone to cause it. He’s worked on that. So we’ve tried to embed that throughout.”
Jacobson’s words drifted into the ether as I fixated on the sprawl of the city outside the window – an endless expanse of urbanity, extending as far as the eye could see. The sky was a yellow-gray color – a sickly hue, mirroring the state of my mind. I still felt groggy from the nighttime cold & flu concoction I’d taken the night before. Everything seemed fuzzy and indistinct.
After a few minutes of zoning out, I turned my attention back to Jacobson, who apparently was still talking.
“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,” he explained, talking about the lead-up to the invasion sequence that happens early in the film. “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 wander 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,” he continued, as if spinning a tale around a campfire. “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 [with a] sense of immediacy. A sense of you really [being] connected to these people and what’s happening to them, and they don’t know. As if it were really, you know, imagine if it were to happen to you. If there was an attack. If there was, like, the blitzkrieg.”
In The Darkest Hour, this blitzkrieg takes place against some of the most iconic locations the sixth-largest city in the world has to offer: Red Square. Freedom Square. The Lenin Library. At one point during the conversation, Jacobson claimed the film was the first American production ever to shoot entirely in the Russian capital.
“It’s not easy to shoot here because the city is very busy and very intense,” said Bekmambetov, who was born in Kazakhstan. “For example, if you want to shoot in Red Square, you have to shut down Red Square. It’s like a hundred thousand people during the weekend. And you have to shut it down and you have to control it, and it’s not easy to do. It’s the same as the shooting day in Lenin Library because it’s by a central road of the country where all of the bureaucrats drive back and forth during the day. And if you want to shoot there, you have to deal with them because they need to think about the security. You cannot put a hundred cars in their way. But somehow it has happened.”
“It took a lot of planning,” said Jacobson. “For instance, there is this one location in Lenin Library. It’s this beautiful state library. It’s very highly regulated with a huge plaza with the statue of Dostoevsky in the front of it. And we wanted to shoot a scene there with our Russian characters. They’re Russian soldiers and that is their encampment. That’s their base. And they told us, ‘There is one Sunday a month. The last Sunday of every month.’
“…We only had so many Sundays on our schedule, so we had to plan really far in advance,” he continued. And when we shot there, we had to go in at midnight the night before and dress it to make it look like an army camp. And for the Russian cast – this is a scene with the combined Russian and American cast – the scene has a hush to it because the Russians, as we were shooting it, they couldn’t believe we were in there. …It’s like, I don’t know, shooting in the Capitol in Washington. It’s this amazing location.”
Someone else half-joked that the film would be a good way to bring in more tourism for the city, even though for the majority of the film it would be seen in ruins.
“Come see Moscow. Worthy of destroying,” said Jacobson.
“Come see it before we will destroy it,” quipped Bekmambetov.
After lunch, we stepped out onto the balcony encircling the top of the hotel to get a better view of the city. 34 stories high, and we really could see everything. Jacobson and Bekmambetov pointed out all the landmarks. Everyone took pictures. I stood alone for a moment at one corner of the terrace, staring off at the horizon. The sky still held that bilious yellow-gray color, and the air felt thick around me. Home had never felt so far away.
Up here though, above all the traffic and the noise, for the first time I was able to truly appreciate the beauty of Moscow. From above it looked like a big, beautiful quilt, a patchwork of colorful onion domes and steely gray housing blocks left over from the Soviet era. The Moskva river coiled through it all, a gentle curl of ashy blue. The rest of the Seven Sisters rose above the landscape at regular intervals like proud sentinels, their spires jutting harshly into the ailing sky.