Dark City (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Crow will forever be remembered as the final performance of budding star Brandon Lee, who died as a result of a tragic behind-the-scenes accident. However, as intense as the hype associated with Lee's death was, it could not obscure the most impressive aspect of the 1994 feature: director Alex Proyas' startling, unforgettable vision. It's rare for any film maker, whether a veteran or a newcomer, to create the kind of compelling, endlessly-fascinating environment that Proyas brought to the screen in The Crow. Now, with his follow-up movie, Dark City, the director incredibly manages to one-up himself.

No movie can ever have too much atmosphere, and Dark City exudes it from every frame of celluloid. Proyas' world isn't just a playground for his characters to romp in -- it's an ominous place where viewers can get lost. We don't just coolly observe the bizarre, ever-changing skyline; we plunge into the city's benighted depths, following the protagonist as he explores the secrets of this grim place where the sun never shines. Dark City has as stunning a visual texture as that of any movie that I've seen. Line up the other recent candidates, which include Tim Burton's Batman, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro's Delicatessan and The City of Lost Children, and Terry Gilliam's Brazil, and Dark City equals or bests them all. Visually, this film isn't just impressive, it's a tour de force.

Thankfully, Dark City doesn't have an "all style, no substance" problem, either, because there's a mind-challenging story to go along with the eye candy. Proyas hasn't written this film for the passive viewer. To become involved in Dark City, thinking is mandatory. Unless you're puzzling out the answers alongside John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), you're going to miss more than one revelation. Very little is spelled out in this movie; the answers are all there, but you have to recognize them for what they are. How often do we get features like this, that don't pander to the least common denominator?

Ironically, two months into 1998, my top three films to date (Sliding Doors, Open Your Eyes, and Dark City) all question the nature of identity and reality. Dark City is much like Open Your Eyes (which was shown at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival and will open theatrically later this year in North America) -- both are meditations on the importance of memory to an individual, and how everyone's personality is comprised of the sum total of his or her remembrances. In the way Dark City tinkers with the boundaries of what's real and what isn't, it recalls The Game. Some viewers may also be reminded of Total Recall, although Proyas' film plunges deep into issues that the Schwarzenegger vehicle used as icing for an action-laden cake.

Dark City opens by immersing the audience in the midst of a fractured, nightmarish narrative. The protagonist, who later learns that his name is John Murdoch, has amnesia. He begins his "new life" as a full-grown adult naked in a bath tub, uncertain of how he got there. His only company in the grungy hotel suite is the nude body of a dead prostitute. Did he kill her or not? He doesn't know. Suddenly, Murdoch receives a phone call from someone named Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), who claims to have his best interests at heart. Schreber warns him to get out of the hotel immediately. Soon, without a clue about his identity, Murdoch is fleeing from corpse-like creatures with incredible mental powers. But it turns out that Murdoch is not defenseless against his enemies -- his mind, like theirs, can shape reality, although he doesn't understand how to harness his abilities. Soon, his quest to unearth his past links him up with Emma (Jennifer Connelly), a woman who is supposedly his wife, and Police Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt), who believes Murdoch to be innocent of the prostitute's murder. But Murdoch's small group of allies offer little help when it comes to dealing with his powerful, ghoulish adversaries, the amoral Mr. Book (Ian Richardson) and Mr. Hand (Richard O'Brien).

Proyas' inspiration for his Dark City appears to be New York during the first half of this century, but, using a style that is part science fiction, part noir thriller, and part gothic horror, he has embellished it to create a surreal place unlike no other. Film lovers will find that Dark City is overflowing with references to classic pictures -- everything from the silent Dracula adaptation, Nosferatu, to Hitchcock's masterful Vertigo. Throw in a little Twilight Zone and Star Trek for good measure. Even if you get bored with the storyline, which is extremely unlikely, there are still plenty of these little details to absorb your attention.

Proyas' excellent vision extends to his casting choices. Rufus Sewell (currently appearing in Dangerous Beauty) makes a perfect John Murdoch, since he is equally good as a confused, desperate refugee and an avenging angel. Kiefer Sutherland, affecting a limp and a strange accent, evokes images of a Nazi scientist who's more concerned with the experiment than with its victims. Jennifer Connelly, who looks the part of a classy, black-and-white screen siren, plays her femme fatale role to a "T". And William Hurt is sufficiently gruff in the kind of part that Humphrey Bogart would have been at home in.

If there's a flaw with Dark City (and it's a small one, to be sure), it's that the film takes a little too long forging a link between the audience and Murdoch. For the first thirty minutes, we're left floating, watching the confounding narrative unfold, marveling over the strange occurrences, and waiting for film to really grab us. Once that happens, it's difficult not to become completely engrossed. So, is the lengthy setup necessary? Almost certainly, and, as I said, any slow spots are only a tiny blemish on the face of a film that offers a gratifyingly original and stunning science fiction experience.

Dark City (United States, 1998)

Ranked #9 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1998
Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 1998-02-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1