Dark City (1998) dir. Alex Proyas
Starring: Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connolly, Kiefer Sutherland, William Hurt
“Dark City” was Aussie Alex Proyas’ follow up to the successful “The Crow”. A masterpiece of visual design, the film has maintained its cult following thanks in part to the persistent flag waving of its biggest fan, Roger Ebert. A new director cut in glorious Blu-Ray is now available.
“Dark City” was slightly ahead of the curve in 1998. The existential themes were explored in a number of comparable films made in the late 90’s. The most obvious is the “Matrix”, made one year after, which tells almost the exact same story, except with mondo bullets, fights, and chases. David Cronenberg’s alternate reality mess, “eXistenZ” also made in 1999.
The story involves a man, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), who wakes up in a tub next to a dead body in a hotel room. He has no memory and by instinct flees the scene trying to figure out what the hell has just happened. It’s a classic film noir set-up. The authorities, led by Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt) are hot on his trail. His wife, Emma (Jennifer Connolly) is concerned when a stranger, Dr. Schreiber (Kiefer Sutherland), comes knocking on her door claiming to be John’s doctor.
Murdoch is also hounded by a group of mysteriously clocked men who conspicuously resemble Max Schreck in “Nosferatu”. We come to learn the men are part of a group of beings with special powers who ‘stop time’ to perform mind-altering experiments on humans. When Murdoch starts to exhibit these powers too, suddenly he becomes the only man who can save the city from its perpetual darkness and despair.
Ten years later the visual design, cinematography and special effect of “Dark City” are still as stunning as then. The ornately textured world Production Designer Patrick Tatopoulos creates is lit with a sharp high contrast style by polish Cinematographer Darious Wolski (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) - a Ridley Scott influenced world – a combination of “Alien” and “Blade Runner”.
Alex Proyas, in the introduction to the DVD, questions the common critics’ critique that the film was style over substance. Indeed, Proyas is right in that the film is actually quite heavy on substance. The overarching story is a deep spiritual examination of human nature. But he’s also wrong in that “Dark City” suffers most because of its style. Ironically, the vital missing piece of the puzzle is its heart. It’s ironic because Murdoch mentions this in the final line to his nemesis, Mr. Hand, before entering the daylight exterior. He says something like, “you wanted to know what it was that made us human… well you were looking in the wrong place” (referring to his brain, as opposed to his heart).
By drenching the film with such a dark, cold and detached tone Proyas strips away all emotional investment in its characters. An interesting comparison would be Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show”, a completely different film but one which explores similar themes of the human spirit and willpower to triumph over control. Like Murdoch Truman is subjected to a prison to which he doesn’t know he’s a part, yet his indefinable human instincts compel him to escape somehow. Yet “The Truman Show” creates such a warm welcoming quality to the journey of its hero. Truman’s grand moment of discovery is infinitely more dramatic and involving than Murdoch’s. Thus, “Dark City” never moves beyond the sci-fi/noir genre elements to truly connect on a visceral and emotional level.
“Dark City” showcases best the robustness of the Blu-Ray format. Unlike the standard definition version of the film, the fine line between darkness and light of “Dark City” almost as it was intended on the big screen. Enjoy.
“Dark City” is available on Blu-Ray from Alliance Films in Canada and New Line Home Entertainment in the U.S.