The clock stops. John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a bathtub. He puts on some clothes and the phone rings. A voice (Kiefer Sutherland) on the other end of the line tells him that people are after him and he has to run for it. That’s when John notices the body of a dead woman next to the bed. He takes his things and leaves just as three oddly dressed individuals come out of the elevator. Downstairs, everyone is asleep. The clock strikes twelve and everyone wakes up. While John tries to piece together his memory, Inspector John Bumstead (William Hurt) tracks down the serial killer that has been murdering prostitutes, leaving behind only a bloody spiral on the bodies of his victims. Do you remember the last time you did something during the day? If not, you might be in Dark City (1998).
Dark City is the kind of film that has always been something other people see. How many times did I walk past it in the video store with only a mild curiosity of what it was about? The poster/dvd cover suggests a horror film like The Lawnmower Man (1992), which I’ve also never been tempted to see, and probably a bad one. Who is this Sewell guy? I don’t think I even turned it around to see what it was about. The trailer, though now I’d call it pretty amazing, was too strange. Even now, its being directed by Alex Proyas helps as much as it hinders. At some point, probably after seeing that it was in Roger Ebert’s Great Movies collection, I decided it was worth buying. Then seeing a good deal for it on blu-ray, I made the leap. That was in May. Much like the video store, it sat in my collection since then as something to watch some other time. That time is now, the clock has struck twelve and I am awake to the pretty serious goodness of Dark City.
Although I am not the sort of person that finds influence an attractive characteristic, I was struck by the familiar images and tone Dark City shared with games like Bioshock and Fallout 3. How Dark City has avoided being adapted into a video game I will never know. The most striking similarity, however, has to be The Matrix (1999). After watching <Dark City, I went to check the timelines to see who influenced whom and found that The Matrix came a full year after Dark City, though had been in the works since 1994. Both in look and subject matter, the two films are blood relatives. The central question to both films is “What makes us human?” Neither gives too clear an answer, but Dark City takes on the question a little more squarely. Dark City is The Matrix‘s older, smarter brother who was overshadowed by the younger sibling because of its glamour and physical prowess. Dark City is a thinker more than a fighter–symbolized perfectly by it’s magnificent climax wherein our hero and main villain, Mr. Book (Ian Richardson), quite literally go head-to-head.
Dark City takes the rough form of a film noir. Like, Blade Runner (1982), there’s a mystery and it isn’t clear that the detective is really in the best place to be sorting things out. Certainly the dialogue and 40’s cultural influence is apparent for much of the human-oriented storyline. Breaking with Blade Runner, Dark City has a parallel world that doesn’t play by those same rules. In the parallel, alien world, things look pretty weird and that weirdness is the biggest flaw in the movie. While it pays off by the end of the film, the gurgling aliens looking like that guy from Powder (1995) with a film noir tailor made it a matter of considerable disbelief-suspension.
Happily, however, the actors–other than Kiefer Sutherland–are good or fantastic. Sewell is just fantastic throughout the film. He has an ethereal quality that makes him both human and believably extra-human, slowly transitioning from one to the other. Jennifer Connelly as Sewell’s love interest is a bit rudderless as a character–blame goes to one or all of the three writers Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs, and David S. Goyer–but is flexible enough to go with the scenes and make that aimlessness as invisible as possible. William Hurt is also quite good as the reserved gumshoe. There was also Richard O’Brien who played Mr. Hand who I found very interesting. Sutherland, though, was not very good. His sniveling, ambiguous psychiatrist/collaborator was distractingly breathless. The man was born with the face of a hero, so putting him in the role of a mad scientist was clearly misguided.
This movie, though it shows signs of dated-ness in the score and approach to science fiction, belongs in the highest echelons of the genre. The questions it faces and the manner in which it does so are classic. That might seem a less cynical way of saying derivative, but I think the questions are so fundamental that every nuance should get its chance. Blade Runner asked about the difference between humans and machines, The Matrix asked us whether we’d live in a dream if we could, and Dark City asks if we are the sum of our actions. The last is perhaps the greatest accepted cliché there is about human nature and Dark City has the strength of character to suggest that the answer is “No”.
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