Dark City (1998)
Release Date: February 27th, 1998 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Alex Proyas Actors: Rufus Sewell, William Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, Richard O’Brien, Ian Richardson, Bruce Spence, Melissa George
irst there was darkness … then came the strangers. An alien race, capable of altering physical reality by will alone, abandoned their world to seek a cure for their own mortality – which led them to Earth. Here, they thought they had found what they were searching for, as their declining civilization was in desperate need of rejuvenation and reinventing. Psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) is a human, aware of the otherworldly visitors and their needs, who has sold his services to their desires.
Meanwhile, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakes in a bathtub, bleeding and with no memory, spying nothing but a goldfish and the dead body of a call girl lying in the corner of the apartment. Schreber phones to let the amnesiac know that an experiment had been conducted but something went terribly wrong; his memory was purposely erased and a squad of men is rapidly descending on his location. At the same time, the good doctor convinces Emma (Jennifer Connelly), Murdoch’s wife, that her husband has suffered a psychotic break and must be apprehended. And top police inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) is on the case, tracking down Murdoch for the murders of several other prostitutes.
“Dark City” moves fast. Too fast. An onslaught of images pummels the viewer, from pieces of a murder to the fleeing of a crime scene to the first steps of an investigation to an attack by knife-wielding, pasty-faced, bald-headed, mind-controlling humanoids. Like Murdoch’s slowly resurfacing memories, the audience must solve the mystery of identities and motives in a world of few initial definitions. Pieces and clues to various character backgrounds do start to aid in comprehending the numerous alien enigmas that populate the film, but so many of the concepts are enormously foreign. As the audience is kept in the dark for longer and longer, the narrative becomes a blur of jumbled particulars and confusing intricacies – like a jigsaw puzzle, as stated by Bumstead. “There has to be an explanation for this.”
Trying for a modernized film noir mixed with gothic science-fiction, “Dark City” is a striking blend of genres and motifs. At times it’s an actioner, a horror film, a thriller, a murder/mystery, and even a romance. And Connelly’s character is a jazz nightclub singer. But few of the ideas mix organically, with the heavy sci-fi themes working independently from the crime drama and detective elements. In fact, the look and designs of the extraterrestrial components are so creatively strange that they can’t possibly fit into the environment of the dated yet futuristic vision of New York (or such a metropolis) – crafted by aliens who like to dabble in reshaping cityscapes and human minds alike.
“Don’t you think it’s about time you started giving me some answers?” This line appears more than an hour into the picture, but doesn’t segue into immediate solutions. The film definitely possesses a vibe of things being spontaneously made up as it goes along; the continual manipulation of memories aids that effect. But as a result, bewilderment trumps awe, despite the monumentally over-the-top ideas and a satisfying conclusion amidst an enslaved dystopian world akin to “The Matrix.” It all culminates in a special effects showdown that doesn’t contain nearly the originality of the opening premise, as if writer/director Alex Proyas was given all the tools to make an epic science-fiction opus but didn’t have the skills to put them all together cohesively. Nevertheless, it’s more intriguing than it is upsetting (if just barely).
– Mike Massie