Dark City

by Alan Rapp on April 17, 2008

in Home Video

  • Title: Dark City
  • IMDb: link

“That’s what Science Fiction and Fantasy is for, after all; to take one behind the scenes,
to force one to reinvent the paradigm. And Dark City does that in spades.”
—Neil Gaiman

I’m a big fan of The Matrix, but I’m a bigger fan of Dark City. Released more than a year before Neo took the red pill to the delight of audiences everywhere, writer/director Alex Proyas presented a similar tale of a man trapped in a world where nothing is quite what is seems. Although not as widely known (more than six times the number of people have taken the time to rate The Matrix on IMDb), it is a superior film in almost every conceivable way. Released in 1998 we mark the occasion by reviewing the DVD ten years later.

Back in the spring of 1998 I was in the middle of a particularly brutal college semester and looking for a few hours respite.  Checking the paper I discovered the local $1 movie theater was showing a film I had missed, Dark City.  Taking a chance, I went.  I went back the next night as well.  And the third night I dragged my two roommates and went back again.  I long ago lost track of the number of films I have seen over my lifetime, but I can count on one hand the films which have had this reaction on me.

Borrowing from traditions and a myriad of classic films including Metropolis and The Day the Earth Stood Still, director Alex Proyas weaves a sci-fi noir tale on the level of Blade Runner,

In an untold time, not quite past, future or present, we begin in the dark, much as our protagonist (Rufus Sewell) who awakes in a hotel bathtub with no memories of who he is or how he got there.  A search leads him to find clothes, and a dead hooker beside the bed.

Our hero learns his name is John Murdock, he has a beautiful wife (Jennifer Connelly), to whom to he is estranged, a psychiatrist (Kiefer Sutherland) is concerned about his mental state, and a cop (William Hurt) is hot on his trail who sees him as the #1 suspect in a string of serial murders involving ladies of the evening.  But John also learns quite quickly that nothing in this city, nothing he has learned, is quite what it appears.

For starters, at midnight every night the entire city stops, and I mean everything.  Every living person falls asleep and all motorized machinery shuts down.  For some reason John alone remains awake to view the city shifting, merging, and changing, while the populace sleeps.  Buildings are removed and transformed as new ones spring from the earth to take their place.  Real estate, however, isn’t John’s primary concern.  Through this dark and metamorphosing city he is pursued not only by the police but a group of odd strangers who are not even human.

It turns out these Strangers are a dying alien race who long ago mastered the ability to alter physical reality by their combined will.  The film gives the power the silly name of tuning (and I can forgive it this small flaw since the power itself is just so damn cool!).  They have abducted the people in the city for a most unusual experiment.  The aliens change reality on a nightly basis, altering the memories of selected citizens as they modify the landscape in the hope to understand the individual mind and gain insight into the human condition.  Will a lower class man suddenly transformed into a millionaire behave differently?  Will a man given the memories of a killer, become one?

Unfortunately for John, he awoke during his rememorization and only has tiny clues to his current reality, which isn’t even real.  The more he searches for answers the more he finds only questions.  The answers themselves are always just beyond his reach, as is the unreachable location from his few childhood memories – Shell Beach.  Although Shell Beach is used mainly as a MacGuffin, the search for it will finally lead John to the answers he so desperately seeks.

The Strangers want John, not only because his awareness jeopardizes the experiment, but for some reason John has shown an ability to tune, which makes him dangerous and perhaps the very thing their experiment was created for and the end of their search.

Sewell, who is often cast as the villain of the piece, is the perfect choice for the film’s protagonist trapped in a maze both physical and mental.  Connelly is well cast in the role of the femme fatale and is given a terrific entrance (watch a clip), and Hurt plays the noir detective with just the right amount mix of intelligence and bravado.  The Strangers themselves (Richard O’Brien, Ian Richardson, Bruce Spence, Nicholas Bell) are creepy, yet intelligent and full of a purpose far beyond the usual movie aliens you might find in a more typical horror or sci-fi flick.

Although the cast is terrific it is the film’s look which is the real star here.  The lighting, production design, camera angles, and overall look and feel of film are amazing.  Although it borrows from several films it creates it’s own world, unlike any we have seen before and is constantly giving our eyes more to enjoy, and our brains more to puzzle over.  You can watch the film, ignore the story, and still have a good time.  The addition of a well constructed tale, which refuses to give away it’s secrets too soon, puts it a far ahead of other films which try to get by on style alone.

There are few movies as complete as Dark City.  In terms of complexity, acting, production design, lighting, cinematography, story, and special effects, it excels.  It wasn’t created just to entertain or to look good, there’s a compelling and engrossing mystery slowly being revealed layer by layer that demands not only your attention but your respect.  The film gives you the expected, but also so much more.  It asks hard questions such as are we nothing more than the sum of our memories and experiences, or are we something more?  What in another director’s hands could have been a simple horror flick or a big budge sci-fi event instead becomes a dimly lit mesmerizing sci-fi noir film which will knock your socks off.

Previous post:

Next post: