Five young people search for a safe way out of Moscow after an alien invasion. That is ‘The Darkest Hour.’ Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But don’t let the simple description fool you. ‘The Darkest Hour’ is a surprisingly tense, visceral, and cerebral sci-fi thriller filled with great effects, grounded performances, and good use of its setting.

I don’t want to give away too much about the film. The film is a taught 90 minutes, so too many revealed details will spoil your enjoyment, but the effects are excellent. From the practical use of miniatures to the CGI, the effects put you right in the story. The disintegration of the humans is sudden, and the tearing apart of atoms looks extremely painful. The aliens are kept off screen for most of the film, which builds suspense, but once they are seen, the animation brings them to life without taking you out of the film. The mark of great effects is that you don’t notice them immediately; if you stop and say, “Hey, that’s a great effect,” during the film, then you’re not engrossed in the story. I remember how stunning the effects are now because I am reflecting on the experience.

Solid performances help make special effects believable. Star Emile Hirsch gives Sean an unexpected depth. Sean and Ben (Max Minghella) are partners in a small internet company; they are in Moscow in hopes of wooing investors and become rich from the social networking/location finder site they have created. In a lesser actor’s hands, Sean would have been shallow, cocky and flippant, but Hirsch grounds Sean in as much reality as possible, and the chemistry he has with Minghella shows us Sean’s friendship with Ben has a history that does not need a lengthy explanation on screen. The way Sean and Ben interact is all we need to know how close these two friends are. Hirsch’s performance centers the rest of the cast, and each actor reacts convincingly to the situations around them. The acting does not give away that they were staring at nothing or standing in front of a green screen.

Each character, even the minor ones, has distinct personalities. In a short time we get to know the five and others that they meet—Vika, Sergei, and Matvei are especially memorable. This is a horror/thriller film, so there are deaths, but I don’t want to give away who dies. A couple of the deaths are not a surprise; I knew the character who violated the first rule of horror films was going to become dust, but one of the deaths was a complete shock, and I was stunned and saddened when it happened.

I liked that the film took place in Moscow and respected the setting. One of the problems I had with ‘Independence Day’ is that the Americans were the saviors; I’m impressed that this is not the case in ‘The Darkest Hour.’ Yes, Sean figures out key aspects about the aliens, but the group meets Russians who have figured out what Sean has and more. Russia is a country that has not been successfully invaded; Russians stopped Napoleon and Hitler, so of course her people are going to fight the aliens. The Russians in the film are creative, smart, and ingenious. In addition to showcasing the people well, Moscow is not a city I have seen a lot of on film, and we are presented with the current Moscow, a city with a deep history that is home to a vibrant young adult population.

Another key reason I appreciate the film is the science. The science is sound and actually vital to the plot. You might want to brush up on Faraday cages before you see the film, and I do recommend this film. ‘The Darkest Hour’ engaged and fascinated me. When the film was over, I wanted to continue on with the story and the characters, which lets me know that ‘The Darkest Hour’ is a suspenseful sci-fi thriller that I enjoyed watching.