When John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes with no memory at the scene of a grisly murder, he soon finds himself hunted by the police, a woman claiming to be his wife and a mysterious group of pale men who seem to control everything – and everyone – in the city.
Starring Rufus Sewell (The Illusionist), Kiefer Sutherland (TV’s 24), Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind) and William Hurt (A History Of Violence).
eyelights: this cut’s more coherent storytelling.
eyesores: the sloppy editing. the bombastic score.
“Imagine a life alien to yours, in which you memories were not your own, but those shared by every other of you kind. Imagine the torment of such an existence….no experiences to call your own.”
‘Dark City’ tells the story of John Murdock, a man who wakes up suffering of amnesia, as he tries to find out who he is and what’s happened to him. Set in a strange city that never sees the light of day, Murdock discovers that unusual forces work behind the scenes to mould and reshape the citizens’ destinies. The motive is as elusive as it is sinister.
But Murdock intends to find out.
Butchered by the studio at the time of its release, in 1998, in the wake of ‘Titanic’, ‘Dark City’ wasn’t a box office success. It has since grown into a cult classic, with many referring to it as one of the great unsung science fiction pictures of the last twenty years. And, in 2008, writer-director Alex Proyas finally got his original vision out on home video.
I had already seen the theatrical version two or three times before getting my hands on the Director’s Cut; it was a movie that I enjoyed, even though I felt that it suffered from editing and tonal issues. When I read recently that the Director’s Cut is indisputably the recommended version of the picture to watch (it’s not always the case), I was very curious to see it.
What’s interesting about the Director’s Cut is that it doesn’t make any dramatic changes, even as it extends the picture by 11 minutes: many of the changes are mild extensions of dialogues and scenes, adding exposition and atmosphere. There are also different takes used, so that some sequences look a bit different, even as they play out similarly as in the Theatrical version.
The changes are subtle enough that most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference; they would merely feel that it breathes better, that it doesn’t hop along hurriedly and somewhat disjointedly like it used to. They might not even notice the colour difference between the two versions, although they would surely notice some of the more blatant changes in this cut.
For one, there’s the infamous opening narration by Kiefer Sutherland. This was always reviled by the director and the picture’s fans (who reportedly watched the opening on mute to avoid hearing it) so it was removed and the speech pushed further into the picture. This is an improvement, as it leaves more to the imagination at the onset.
Perhaps the studio wanted to give Sutherland more screen presence, but he’s not the main character; it’s not his story. Hearing him, then seeing him right from the start (in that crappy straight-to-video insert) added nothing. It would also have been better if we didn’t see him when he calls Murdock to warn him, so that there’s more mystery behind the call.
You know, like a real Film Noir would do (a genre of which ‘Dark City’ is clearly inspired).
Then there is the matter of Jennifer Connelly’s voice being overdubbed for her jazz club scenes. The dubbing was so poorly done that it pained me to listen on the old version. Here it’s her voice, as intended – and, in the first song, it’s 100% better. She sucks in the 2nd one, but at least she sucks in her own voice (were they planning to fix it and never did?).
The initial sequence in which Murdock discovers that the city is being reshaped at the count of midnight has slightly more resonance here because the disparate material was pulled together into a more cohesive whole. Plus which his reaction is less passive, sedate, as he tries to wake people up (echoing the end of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers‘).
There’s a scene in which Murdock follows a prostitute back to her place and then leaves while she’s undressing. In the Theatrical version, we don’t really know why (although a weak explanation is offered later). In this one, we discover that the prostitute has a young daughter. This informs the character and finally provides insight in his behaviour.
The young daughter also shows up later, when Inspector Bumstead and Emma try to find Murdock, in a scene that wasn’t in the original film. It adds a touch of humanity that was sorely missing. It also serves to extend the screen time devoted to Bumstead and Emma’s dynamic, which is explored more in full in a few welcome extended sequences.
Interestingly, some of the special effects, particularly during the tuning, having been tweaked. I was stunned while watched the Theatrical version the other day, to see how poorly rendered the effect was. Well, in the Director’s Cut, it was toned down (or never amped up, perhaps), making it far more subtle – as it should very well have been in the first place.
Some scenes were cut differently as well, such as the sequence when Dr. Shreber goes to the pool and is confronted by Mr. Hand. In this one, not only is it not cut up between shots of Murdock and Emma talking, Murdock is actually on location, hidden in the shadows, and listening in on their conversation. This really changes the scene.
And yet, many of the original editing issues persist. The linearity of the storytelling doesn’t come into question as much, but Murdock still arrives at Shreber’s after Hurt even though he went straight there and had left first. So weird. And there are issues such as Connelly’s hair clearly changing from take to take when she goes to see Bumstead.
And the music remains needlessly bombastic. There are sequences that would have benefited from more atmosphere but were instead a full-on aural assault instead. So unnecessary. Perhaps the score was recorded and commissioned by the studio after the Theatrical version was cut together, so there wasn’t anything else for Proyas to work with…?
The Director’s Cut is certainly an improvement over the Theatrical version, but the script remains problematic: nothing explains how those needles don’t damage the recipients’ brains, how the strangers fix the whole population in one night, why they would allow one of their own to kill wantonly, and how any of this helps them find the human soul.
But there are good ideas being tossed about in ‘Dark City’ and they tickle the intellect enough to allow the viewer to overlook the picture’s many lapses; on the whole, it intrigues more than it frustrates. Backed by a bold stylistic vision, it makes for one of the more memorable entries in the science fiction genre in recent memory. It’s well worth checking out.
Just make sure you stick with the Director’s Cut.
Date of viewing: May 24, 2015