A film review by Craig J. Koban



10th Anniversary Retrospective Review 

1998, R , 92 mins.  

Director's Cut:

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

Directed by Alex Proyas / Written By Proyas, Lem Dobbs And David S. Goyer

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.  

Time, 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. 

I think 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. 

Of 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.  

Regardless 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.  

Perhaps 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? 

If 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. 

Yet, 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. 

DARK 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 they love. 

It’s 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. 

The 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? 

There 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.  

John 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 proficiency. 

The 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. 

Believe 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 detaching and 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. 

The 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 significant film. 

Regrettably, 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. 

Nevertheless, 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.  

In the end, though, the film’s most long-standing legacy is that it allows viewers to both drink in its gorgeous eye candy while thinking seriously about its dense thematic material.  Proyas’ film is about artificiality and he himself uses movie artificiality to create its illusions, but its core has humanistic impulses and drives.  Watching the film is like looking at a methodically constructed painting, one where you can appreciate and marvel at its artifice, see the artist within the work that created it, and – most substantially – be able to understand the inner emotional beat of the piece.  DARK CITY can easily be qualified – both now and ten years ago – as great art…and most assuredly a great film that should be re-discovered by new filmgoers growing stale of current Hollywood conventions and industry complacency.   

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