My notes on the 2011 science fiction film.
Chris Gorak made an effective directorial debut with Right at Your Door, an intimate disaster/paranoia movie; here, he has a larger palette, a dumber script and a general sense of things not quite turning out as the studio had hoped to hinder him. It owes a lot to the 1950s likes of Target Earth or The World, the Flesh and the Devil in the ‘deserted city’ stakes, but there are specifics which recall Night of the Comet, the Spielberg War of the Worlds and the barely cold-in-its grave Vanishing on 7th Street too, so its high concept is not so much young folks-alone-in-a-city-fighting-off-mostly-unseen-aliens as a US SF movie set in Moscow, where filming conditions evidently allow for more closed-off streets and deserted bridges than in more familiar locations. The menace here arrives in columns of light (like in Skyline) and is seen for the most part as a heat ripple which turns out to be an invisible shield for angry creatures for all the world like the tentacled head from Invaders From Mars – the aliens zip around the city (and, apparently, the world) turning every heat signature human being to dust in a neat if overused effect.
The problem is that our viewpoint characters are callow, shallow and played by folks who thought their careers would be in better shape by now than they are – young internet entrepreneurs Sean (Emile Hirsch, struggling after Speed Racer) and Ben (Max Minghella, in another sidekick role), who have a grudge against idea-napping creep Skyler (Joel Kinnaman) even before he shoves his girlfriend into the alien death-wave in order to save his life, and club chicks Natalie (Olivia Thirlby) and Anne (Rachael Taylor, adding to a CV which includes Man-Thing and Ghost Machine). These foreigners hide in a cellar for a week, then emerge to wander about the stricken city, aiming first for the US embassy (which is toast) then for a submarine taking survivors out to regroup and fight back against the power-sucking aliens, who are here (like in ID4) to stripmine the Earth. The idea is that the mostly Yank characters are relatable in the way locals aren’t, and the Russians we meet are ridiculous stereotypes – waiflike tough chick Vika (Veronika Ozerova), premise-explaining eccentric scientist Sergei (Dato Bakhtadze) and a bunch of grinning shaven-headed tattooed Nationalist underground fighters defending their hood like it was Stalingrad in WWII.
Given Moscow’s interesting (to say the least) architecture, history and climate, it might be a character point that these dolts still head to an anonymous mall before whining for the consul to help them out – but it’s more likely a failure of the imagination on the part of Jon Spaihts (this credit adds an uh-oh to his hotly-anticipated second project, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus), who scripted from a story co-written with Leslie Bohen (A Nightmare on Elm St: The Dream Child, Dante’s Peak, the TV show Taken) and MT Ahern. It has a lot of half-cool, half-clever ideas: the scientist has worked out that making his flat into a Faraday Cage will keep the aliens out (yes, letting the Americans in gets him killed), the aliens presence is signalled because they make otherwise power-drained lightbulbs flare up (the climax involves a fight in a tram which also starts working when a monster is near) and a big zap gun is rigged up to enable some token payback (a few aliens get blasted) amid the general wipeout of humanity.
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