Dark City

Dark CitySynopsis: They built the city to see what makes us tick. Last night one of us went off.

When John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakens in a strange hotel room, he finds that he is wanted for a series of brutal murders. The problem is he can’t remember a thing. Pursued by the police and haunted by The Strangers, mysterious beings who possess the ability to stop time and alter reality, he seeks to unravel the twisted riddle of his identity. But in a city where reality is the ultimate illusion, discovering the truth could be fatal.

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Dark City 7.75

eyelights: the core concept. the set designs. the props. the costumes.
eyesores: the nonsensical plot development. the sloppy editing. the over-zealous score.

“I know this is gonna sound crazy, but what if we never knew each other before now… and everything you remember, and everything that I’m supposed to remember, never really happened, someone just wants us to think it did?”

I’m a huge fan of ‘The Crow‘. Because of this, director Alex Proyas’ work is firmly on my radar. That he was able to make a coherent picture after the death of star Brandon Lee is pretty amazing. The picture also has a style and vibe that really appeals to me; I can’t lavish enough praise on it. So, when Proyas’ next film, ‘Dark City’, came out, I was immediately intrigued by it.

The problem is that I didn’t really hear about it until it was gone from cinemas. Although ‘Dark City’ was well-received by critics and is now considered a significant entry in the sci-fi genre. Released in February of 1998, it died a quick death, bringing in a mere 14 million dollars over the course of four weeks. Even with international grosses it was a flop. Blame ‘Titanic’ if you must.

I jumped at the chance to see it when it finally made its way to home video. It was one of the first DVD releases and I was eager to get my hands on it – especially since it boasted what was then a wealth of special features to boot. So I bought it, watched it, and immediately fell in love with it. Not as much as ‘The Crow’, naturally, but enough so that I got the poster and later bought it on blu-ray.

‘Dark City’ takes place in a city that never sees the light of day. Its architecture is a hodge podge of various styles and origins, but with very much a film noir-meets-‘Metropolis‘ vibe. Similarly, the look of things can be discrepant, with older fashion, objects and vehicles having their own peculiar twists to them. It’s as if this city were designed by an alien mind that doesn’t understand human life.

And that’s where ‘Dark City’ becomes interesting.

Behind the film noir exterior of this cityscape are other beings: bald, pale-faced men dressed in long black coats and black hats who navigate its streets and corridors with a sense of ownership and invulnerability that is disconcerting. Under their eerie gaze, the city falls asleep, morphs, changes shape. Literally. At twelve o’clock, seemingly every day, the city is reconfigured and its people rearranged.

And sometimes also given new memories.

But there is one man who sees what is going on: John Murdoch, who has woken up in a bathtub with no memories and no ID, and who is warned via an anonymous phone call that he is wanted for murder. Not only must he escape the law and the strangers, but he must also figure out who is and if he is in fact the person that they seek. Meanwhile, the city continues to change around him, complicating things.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

‘Dark City’ is a motion picture so full of potential thatis squandered by a few unfortunate problems:For one, there is the opening narration, which was forced upon Proyas by the studio (who felt that the movie would be too cryptic for movie audiences) and which reveals too much, dispelling much of the picture’s enigmatic quality. It is said that fans were known to watch the opening on mute to avoid the narration when it first came out on home video. A director’s cut has since fixed the issue.

Another significant issue with the picture is its editing. I don’t know if this only takes place in the theatrical version, but sequences are cut together in such a way that scenes don’t always fit a linear timeline. Further to that, characters get around far too quickly, as though they teleport from one place to the next, instead of using ’50s automobiles. Let’s just say the flow is a bit off.

This could also be a script issue, not an editing one. There are a number of discrepancies that take place along the way that bothered me some, such as the notion that the strangers are unable to find Murdoch in a city of such limited size. So, instead, they inject one of their own with Murdoch’s memories so that he can get hints of where to look for him. To me, that’s really just a contrivance.

Then there’s the matter of the ending, which had Murdoch and Inspector Bumstead bash a hole through the wall where Shell Beach should have been. Really, everyone and everything should have been sucked out, but it doesn’t happen. This was enough of an issue at initial screenings that Proyas added a scene (not a clear one, it must be noted) suggesting a force field, to try to fix the issue.

And then there’s the last scene, which has Murdoch meeting Anna on a pier that stretches outward from the wall surrounding the city. Since the only way in is through the hole he made in the wall, how did she get there? The last time that we saw her, she was on a bus to Shell Beach, along with a whole bunch of other people. Where was the bus’ final destination? And where did all those people go?

Hmmm…

Perhaps the editor merely followed the script and that the script was incoherent?

The picture also has other technical issues that were apparently imposed on the studio as well, so it very well could be that Proyas had no say in some matters. One grave one has Jennifer Connelly’s voice overdubbed during her acts at the jazz club. The vocals so clearly don’t match her it’s ridiculous; it’s probably one of the worst dubbings I’ve heard since the martial arts pictures of old.

Speaking of which, the soundtrack was further destabilized by Trevor Jones’ bombastic score, which some have praised, but which I found far too loud and overly dramatic for my taste; in trying to add excitement, he essentially overwhelmed many of the scenes. I’ve heard Jones’ work before and it’s frequently far more subtle than this, so I’d venture that this was a studio or directorial request.

Having said this, ‘Dark City’s soundtrack is incredibly dynamic. The blu-ray has a 7.1 track that blasts through the room, filling it with all manners of textures. I found a small issue with the audio in the back right surround, which made me worry that I had blown my speakers, but I suspect that this is not the case – that it’s merely the blu-ray’s audio track that’s problematic.

Oh well, nothing’s perfect.

Thankfully, there’s plenty to make up for those issues:

Firstly, there’s the core concept, which is as cool as it is baffling. This city is a microcosm that is essentially one big behavioural experiment. The choices that the strangers make seem random, but there’s no doubt method to that madness. And it’s intriguing. Also intriguing is the fact that people don’t even question the fact that there is no day, that they pass out at 12:00, and forget things.

It’s like they aren’t even real human beings, or that they’ve been engineered to override certain innate behaviours, like self-reflection. That they were engineered would actually make sense because these people fall asleep in their baths, soups, at the wheel, and there are no casualties. It’s as though they can’t die when time stops (because they surely can when life carries on as per “normal”).

It’s all so unusual, so mystifying, so fascinating.

Then there is the visual aspect of the picture, which is total eye candy. Yes, the CGI is dated now. But the set designs are astonishing to see. They built sets that are much taller than standard in order to get Proyas’ full vision on screen. Although each set is stunning, the most notable, of course, is the hidden world of the strangers, which has an amazing cyberpunk or ‘Hellraiser‘ vibe.

Speaking of which, the strangers are very much cousins of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Borg and ‘Hellraiser’s Cenobites, particularly Pinhead, what with their black costumes and bald heads -and the teeth clacking that they do is clearly a Cenobite inspiration. Either way, a room full of them is an unforgettable sight – especially since they only congregate in their hidden world.

Richard O’Brien (or ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show‘ fame) plays one of the key strangers, called Mr. Hand. His performance is without a doubt the anchor of the picture. While William Hurt is good, Rufus Sewell is perfectly okay and Jennifer Connelly is given too little to make any difference, good or bad, O’Brien gives Mr. Hand enough intelligence and nefariousness to make him feel threatening.

The weak point of the picture, performance-wise, is Kiefer Sutherland. He’s actually good in the part of Dr. Schreber, but it’s the characterization which annoys the crap out of me. This may very well be no fault of his own: Schreber has serious health issues, including a weak heart, and this leaves him extremely short of breath, so Sutherland’s every word is cut short by brief inhales.

The picture also has some exciting if not breathtaking action sequences. While I’m not great fan of Murdock’s visible “tuning”, which emanates from the center of his forehead, this ability allows him to reshape his environment at will, inserting spontaneous elements into the sequences, adding to their dynamism. The finale is particularly engaging; it’s epic and amazing to watch.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

‘Dark City’ is not without its flaws. While it’s understandable that it has its fans, given all the fascinating elements that it tosses into the mix, it would benefit tremendously from some re-editing. Having said this, a director’s cut was released in 2008 and it is considered superior by many fans, so perhaps many of the original cut’s issues have been addressed in some form or another.

I very much look forward to seeing it (the blu-ray has both versions, b-t-w). I think that ‘Dark City’ has the potential of being one of the best science-fiction films in recent times. Christopher Nolan himself has stated that he was influenced by it, as well as ‘The Matrix‘ and ‘The Thirteenth Floor‘, in the making of ‘Inception’. Now, if that’s not a tremendous endorsement, then I don’t know what is.

If you haven’t yet seen ‘Dark City’, it’s high time you thought about exploring it.

Date of viewing: May 13, 2015

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