Dark City (1998) / Sci Fi-Mystery
MPAA Rated: R for violent images and some sexuality
Running Time: 100 min. (director's cut runs 111 min.)
Cast: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Richard O'Brien, Ian Richardson, Bruce Spence, Colin Fiels, John Bluthal Mitchell Butel, Melissa George
Director: Alex Proyas
Screenplay: Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs, David S. Goyer
Review published September 15, 2015
Alex Proyas (I Robot, Knowing) directs and co-scripts this science fiction mystery-thriller with film noir leanings, along with co-writers Lem Dobbs (The Hard Way, The Score) and David S. Goyer (Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD, Blade) , which has its champions who think it is truly something special, including Roger Ebert, who proclaimed it the best film of 1998. Though I personally find it too uneven in its execution to agree, I will give Proyas credit for crafting a masterfully visual experience that contains some pretty nifty, philosophical sci-fi concepts worth pondering. That it beat the similarly premised The Matrix to the punch by over a year is at least worthy of some respect.
After a superfluous and all-too-revelatory voice-over intro (objected to by Proyas and removed for the director's cut), Rufus Sewell (Bless the Child, A Knight's Tale) stars as John Murdoch, who wakes up one day with amnesia in an non-descript hotel room with a butchered woman, immediately having to go on the run as the prime suspect in a series of murders of prostitutes around the city -- but he can't remember if he did it. In addition to the police force, Murdoch is also hotly pursued by a shifty psychologist named Dr. Shreber (Sutherland, A Few Good Men), a tenacious detective, Frank Bumstead (Hurt, Alice), a woman claiming to be his philandering wife, Emma (Connelly, Labyrinth), and a spate of pale and creepy-looking, trenchcoated Nosferatus (or so they appear), who are looking for Murdoch because he seems to possess abilities above and beyond what normal men have, which makes him a danger to them. As Murdoch seeks to get to the bottom of who he is and what's going on, he discovers that there's an even bigger mystery, which is who everyone else is, what kind of city they all reside in, why is it being controlled by these shady creatures who seem otherworldly, and just why does it always seem to be nighttime?
I realize that many people have their own theories as to what Dark City is all about, but at the time I originally saw it on DVD in the late 1990s, was it is just some trippy story built on reveals. A recent re-watching of it gives me a different feeling, and I wonder how many people see the movie as I do: a metaphor for the Hollywood filmmaking process. In a sense, the entire city is like a studio lot, in which buildings are repurposed or changed at regular intervals, and its inhabitants are re-cast into ever-changing roles at the whim of the "Strangers", who are like the studio heads (interestingly, all male and all white) who are using their characters to create their own stories, all set in this gloriously old-time Hollywood era full of damsels, killers, and cops.
As the title would imply, the look of the film is dark, so make sure you have good projection, or a bright TV set, if you are to undertake it and expect to see what's going on. It's quite similar in this fashion to Proyas's previous film, The Crow, which features similar lighting and emphasis on set design, as well as the same cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski (Crimson Tide, A Perfect Murder). Others will draw comparisons to other sci-fi classics like Metropolis, Blade Runner, and Brazil, which all featured dark, gloomy and Kafka-esque cityscapes with much more going on underneath the surface that feels dense and oppressive.
I realize some viewers are taken away by the film, but, while I will admit to finding it somewhat nifty in parts, I can't quite rave as strongly. First, it is very uneven in its performances, with plenty of hamming from its cast all around, especially with a cartoonish turn by the most well-known of the film's stars at this point, Kiefer Sutherland, who sputters, stutters, wheezes, and limps around the film as if playing in a movie for high camp value. The movie also overdoes the style quotient, to the point where it plays more like a slew of cut scenes to a video game that looks like it would be more fun to play than to watch, especially as a handful of sets get used and reused in this movie even though we're supposed to be exploring the environs of a very large city. It's loopy and trippy, but with no characters to care about or root for, and a story that's merely a series of dizzying plot points that tease the mind but do little to make you think the movie is anything but an elaborate puzzle box. If the Strangers, as the aliens come to be called, want to learn about what it is to be human, it certainly doesn't seem like they'd glean much from the sketchy representatives found in their very city.
Proyas's artistic vision is the real attraction to Dark City, which often times feels like a graphic novel come to life (hearkening back to The Crow yet again). It's a mystery at its core, but one with multiple levels of intricacy, such that it will either fascinate you into a repeat viewing shortly after, or cause you to check out early and never bother to return. Even if the labyrinthine plot loses you, there's still a great deal to see and admire as the pieces of the puzzle eventually start to come together, even if the finale is full of a little too much bombast and silly head-to-head (literally) confrontations for my personal taste, particularly in the explosive showdown. While it did end up in cinemas a year before The Matrix, the Wachowski opus, which also featured a man who wakes up to realize the world he lives in is all a fabrication, proved to be so popular and inclusive that Dark City has probably been relegated to no more than cult film status for its small but vocal collection of fans.
©2015 Vince Leo