A film review by Craig J. Koban
DARK CITY: THE DIRECTOR'S CUT
10th Anniversary Retrospective
1998, R , 92 mins.
1998, R , 92 mins.
2008, no MPAA rating, 111 mins.
John Murdoch: Rufus Sewell / Inspector Bumstead: William Hurt
/ Dr. Daniel Schreber: Kiefer Sutherland / Emma Murdoch: Jennifer
Connelly / Mr. Hand: Richard O'Brien
When I first saw Alex Proyas’ DARK CITY back in 1998 I was not altogether sure if I liked the film or not. I initially recalled it as a splendidly creative visual experience and its focus on meticulous artistic detail was immersing. However, I found its story and characters kind of distancing: they almost pushed me away from the proceedings when they should have allowed me to embrace the movie even fuller.
however, has been very kind to the film in my eyes, and Proyas’
limitless ingenuity, sense of style, and command over the aesthetic
palette of DARK CITY still astounds – perhaps ever more now – but
what’s strikingly different is how much more deeply I feel the story
resonates with added weight and complexity.
In some manners, DARK CITY has emerged as an almost forgotten and
criminally overlooked masterpiece of 1990’s cinema.
It certainly is a great film that is perhaps only now receiving some much needed accolades from critics and film fans as a
searing and gratifyingly original work in the genre.
that the truly magnificent films of our time stir within us an almost
ethereal level of awe and wonder in their sights.
Some films obligate themselves to show off their million dollar
visual effects shots in obligatory rapid fire editing styles that seem
designed for people that suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder.
DARK CITY, on the other hand, is a marvelously lush escapist
treat in the sense of the innovation and generosity of its images.
Some films provide just enough visual information to tell their
stories, but Proyas’ film goes just that much further – almost out of
its way – to linger on details and the sweeping pageantry of shots and
compositions that other lackluster - and impatient - films would dare
not. Very few films could be viewed without any sound or dialogue,
but just try watching DARK CITY with the volume all the way down: This
film is so dripping with detail and hauntingly beautiful cinematography that
you could just as easily view it as a silent film and be satisfied. Not to many films have that power.
course, this was most likely Proyas’ intentions, having been so
thoroughly intoxicated and influenced by German Expressionistic films from
auteurs like Fritz Lang, whose films like METROPOLIS, NOSFURATO, and M
come heavily to mind while watching DARK CITY.
The film also has clear-cut artistic echoes of the sumptuous sheen
of stupendous works of 1940’s film noir, with its ominous use of black
and white and shadow play. They
are also several instances where more modern day influences can be felt in
Proyas’ film, such as the enveloping and monumental skylines of
dystopian L.A. in BLADE RUNNER,
from the gothic trappings of Gotham City in the first few Tim Burton BATMAN
films to other astonishing visual feats like BRAZIL and even Proyas’
first American film effort, THE CROW, which was one of the more
confidently mounted and stunningly evocative comic book adaptations of its time.
of its obvious antecedents, DARK CITY is a film that viewers can truly
savor. Even if one finds its
story grim and impersonal, there’s no denying that the film is an
absolute tour de force triumph of special effects, physical effects,
cinematography and, most importantly, unbridled film resourcefulness.
I remember watching films like STAR
WARS and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and starred at the screen in
complete stupefaction: These were films that daringly imagined worlds that
were once unimaginable, places that could never be were now being conjured
up to my very eyes. DARK CITY
illicits similar sensations, and the way Proyas and his cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski, obsess over the most minute of
details is grand. The way
their foreshorten images, use wide angle lenses, sparingly use close up
and titled frames for the right effect, even the subtle use of source
light, all have a specific purpose here: they both accentuate and are a
part of the film’s story. Proyas
is, like many new directors, a former music video maker, which usually is
not a sign of confidence, but he goes deeper with his film’s
artistic luster. You sense a
real workmanship and craft in DARK CITY that can be admired; he’s just
not throwing up redundant pretty images to wow viewers.
the film’s look overshadows it storyline and themes, which only seems
inevitable. Yet, upon several
viewings of the film after its initial release – especially on a truly
marvelous new Blu-Ray special edition, which significantly does justice to
Proyas’ vision – one comes out of the film with a greater appreciation
for the layers of meaning of its story. There is a poignant sense of personal tragedy to the film,
which involves a human character that is fighting internal and external
forces to understand the nature of reality and whether or not his
existence is real or manufactured. More
paramount to the film is the notion of memories and whether one can
perceive their own memories as having truly happened or whether they were
simply conjured up by beings beyond their realm of understanding.
The larger ramifications of these issues have a real sense of
immediacy and pathos: What if
you lived a relatively normal life with a loving wife and then were
given the knowledge that all that you recall experiencing with her were
complete fabrications? How
could you justly love someone if you know that – in reality – you
never actually met the woman or had a palpable human connection with her
to precipitate your love?
these themes have a striking familiarity, then you are not alone.
Much as been made of DARK CITY’s resemblance to a film that came
out nearly at the same time, 1999’s landmark THE MATRIX.
They both share some strong parallels:
Both were filmed at Fox Studios in Sydney (THE MATRIX actually
re-used some of DARK CITY’s own sets), but beyond that superficial
connection both sci-fi films largely concern artificially implanted fake
memories and environments that are rigidly overseen by superhuman beings
(in THE MATRIX’S case, highly intelligent robots, in DARK CITY it’s
aliens). Even look at the
nature of both films’ protagonists, as they both come to the realization
of who they are and what they are capable of (both films’ heroes become
capable of matching the oppressors at their own games and powers).
Even beyond that, both film’s conjured up a stunning atmosphere
and sense of dread in the proceedings.
the truly amazing aspect of DARK CITY was that – despite its
similarities to the Wachowski Brothers’ groundbreaking film – it did
come out first, it was the first to take a stab at the same issues and
themes, and it also did so on a much smaller scale and budget than THE
MATRIX did, which is all the more incredible considering that, it could be
argued, Proyas’ vision has more innovation, style, and emotion to
it. And, yes, both are visual effects heavy films for their
respective times, but I believe that DARK CITY seems less slavish to
computer trickery and instead goes the route of using the oldest
of the old and the newest of the new tricks at its disposal to tell its
story. Perhaps this is why
the film has aged pretty gracefully over the last decade and has a sense
of timelessness about it.
CITY also has more intriguing villains whose motives are both
simultaneously sinister and not entirely without understanding.
In THE MATRIX the antagonists that slave humanity in a simulated
reality are that same sort of all-powerful and humanity hating monsters
that have populated science fiction for decades.
In DARK CITY Proyas crafts “villains” that are more compelling.
His alien characters are easy to label as vile, but they exude less
of a putrid hatred for mankind and more of a childlike curiosity about
them, which precludes their experimenting on them.
They don’t want to destroy people, but rather how they tick,
which almost supercedes any perception of the villains as truly monstrous.
They are akin to scientists that use guinea pigs as experiments.
What’s so gripping about DARK CITY is that the creatures that toy
with and manipulate humans for their own experiments fail to grasp at the
more simplistic notions of what makes people who they are.
They can see that humans “love”, but they never understand why
so decisive to see how Proyas was so deeply inspired by science fiction
tales of simulated realities that he took in during his childhood (the
concept of a small group of humans that occupy a guarded environment that
is controlled by outside alien forces is a key ingredient to sci-fi books
like Harry Harrison’s CAPTIVE UNIVERSE and Robert A. Heinlein’s
ORPHANS OF THE SKY). Moreover,
sprinkles of Raymond Chandler and hard edged private eye fiction can be
felt in DARK CITY’S narrative. We
have a city and universe that seems to have all of the minutia of 40’s
PI yarns, right down to the fedoras, the cigarettes, the cars, the
fashions, even down to the detective with plucky gumshum and determination and
the sultry woman that comes into his world.
And then there is a mystery to be solved thrown into the mix
with subtle odes to Kafka-esque paranoia and intrigue.
script – written by Proyas, Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer, the latter
being one of the screenwriters
for BATMAN BEGINS and who also
assisted in providing
the story for this year’s masterful THE DARK
KNIGHT – begins with a seductive allure. We see a man, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), waking up in his
hotel room with no memory of what has immediately transpired.
What soon becomes apparent is that a murdered woman is nearby…but
did he kill her? Can he
remember killing her? He soon
receives a phone call from a weird scientist named Dr. Schreber (Kiefer
Sutherland, long before 24 badly typecast him) who quickly warns Murdoch
that he needs to leave the scene immediately.
But why? Who is after
him and why are they after him?
is a wise and grizzled detective named Bumstead (William Hurt) that is
searching for the man responsible for the murder of six prostitutes.
He thinks that Murdoch is the man and the evidence is strong, but
can Murdoch be held responsible? He
certainly seems oblivious to any memories of doing the deeds and, most of
the time, he is so overcome with rambunctious mistrust over his own mental
faculties that you kind of believe that he truly does not think that he
killed the women. There is
one thing that he does remember and that is his luminous wife, played by
Jennifer Connolly, and she seems certain that he is innocent, but then
Bumstead seems to insist on using her for his investigation.
Also, as the story progresses, John starts to question his reality
with his wife.
also has larger problems outside of law enforcement.
Things around him go a bit haywire: time and people around him
stop, his physical reality begins to morph and alter right before his
eyes, and his very mind plays tricks on him.
He also seems to have “gifts” that he cannot explain or
comprehend other than to know that he seems to be able to use them without
much conscious thought. Slowly,
but surely, he develops psychokinetic powers: he can move items and alter
reality with his mind. This
is where the Strangers come in, a strange and exotic group of humanoids
that too shares in Murdoch’s extraordinary powers, albeit with more
Strangers – all which look like tall and slender vampires, which have pale
skin, razor sharp teeth, piercing eyes, and a wardrobe inspired by NOSFURATU – are the
epicenter of the film’s mystery. They are all-powerful and are certainly not human.
We learn that these Strangers are indeed aliens from another cosmos
that have collected humans to study them under their own petri dish, in
their case, an enormously large ship in outer space that houses a city
where the people can live and interact with one another.
The humans themselves are not aware that their whole existence is a
lavish and large-scale bit of fakery.
Even more threatening is the notion that the Strangers can alter or
“tune” whatever they want so that they can change the variables for
their experiments. They do
this every night at precisely midnight and their tuning collectively
knocks out all of the city dwellers so they can manipulate their
surroundings and inject new memories into them (with the help of
Sutherland’s kooky doctor) to more thoroughly understand people.
Unfortunately for them, their experiment takes a nasty turn when
it’s revealed that John does not fall asleep like all of the other city
dwellers during the tuning process, not to mention that he seems to share
the Stranger’s powers.
it or not, that only kind of scratches the surface of DARK CITY.
The film itself is like going through the history of the medium,
especially considering all of the before-mentioned homages and winks it
makes towards classic films. It’s
one of the more elaborately constructed and implemented of all hybrid
films, marrying equal parts sci-fi morality parable, a tense thriller, an
involving murder mystery, and a gothic horror and luxuriant film noir.
First viewings for people will most likely concentrate on the
film’s visual opulence, but more viewings, I hope, will help reveal the
subtle insights the film’s story has and the intriguing questions it
ponders about the nature of artificiality versus authenticity.
The film has been scrutinized by many for feeling emotionally
lacking in a dramatic arc and humanistic focus, but DARK CITY is in the
grand tradition of thought-provoking sci-fi in the way it scrutinizes the very
nature of humanity when placed in bizarre circumstances that people have no
control over. Only through
their understanding and acceptance of what’s real and what’s not does
the essence of being human reveal itself.
Sometimes, our baser emotional impulses are more clear and bona
fide than our perception of a physical reality.
1998 theatrical version of DARK CITY ran just over 100 minutes, but
finally Proyas has been allowed to release his own Director’s Cut of the
film on DVD and Blu-Ray in the manner he originally intended.
Some of the alterations are substantial, whereas most are subtle
and discrete. Most notable to
the extra eleven minutes in the film is a lack of a controversial voice
over narration that begins the movie, which all but explains the mysteries
of the film that should have been better left off the film to allow our
intrigue in it (Proyas recounts how the studio all but forced him to put it
in after a disastrous test screening of the film). Most of the other changes are small, but noticeable, from
things ranging from minor visual effects tweaks (some of the tuning shots
have been enhanced, and early shots of John learning to tune have actually
had CGI visuals toned down from them to give a more subtle effect).
There are a few more subplots thrown it, sequences where we
actually get to hear Jennifer Connolly’s real voice singing (her character
is a lounge singer, and as to why the studio felt the need to get a voice
replacement for her in the first place seems odd), a few more key scenes with
Bumstead and Murdoch, and some small changes in establishing shots and
dialogue. All in all, DARK
CITY: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT is the most essential way to view an already
DARK CITY was box office poison when released in theatres, but like many
cult films, its strong word of mouth reputation grew when it hit DVD,
which still can be felt to this day. The overwhelming worldwide success of THE MATRIX TRILOGY has
certainly impacted DARK CITY as a work that has notoriety for its themes
and visual texture, and many people whom have seen Proyas' film lazily give
it the moniker of a Wachowski rip-off.
Even more damning was the film’s lack of one single Oscar
nomination, not even in the technical categories where it all but deserved
recognition. DARK CITY just
may be one of the most overlooked films worthy of Academy consideration
that was unceremoniously snubbed. History
has shown the Academy’s lack of foresight to recognize Proyas’
technical achievements here as a shameful and dubious oversight.
sometimes the great films are the most ignored and go on unseen and
unnoticed. Even if its
reputation has improved over the last ten years and the film’s exposure
has improved exponentially, DARK CITY remains one of the great buried
treasures of recent movie history.
The film’s art direction and style have a richness and
expansiveness that films today (at five times the budget) have
difficulty duplicating. It also is a work that does such a skillful job of marrying
the sci-fi film with copious elements of the film noir and horror/thriller
genre. As a pure, escapist
visual odyssey, DARK CITY is intoxicatingly exhilarating for how it dares
to dream up worlds and environments that seem new and unique despite their
subconsciously familiar elements.