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Dark City Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 5, 2008

    Dark City Review
    “First there was darkness. Then came the Strangers.”

    Dark City, Alex Proyas' 1998 follow-on from The Crow had cult-status stamped all over it from the very moment it arrived. Heady sci-fi concepts of fractured realities, a subjugated society unwittingly starring as the experimental playthings of mischievous God-like beings, a film-noir vogue, the grim splendour of Blade Runner-cum-Metropolis and mind-bending plot twists aplenty were all genre flavours that could seemingly do no wrong to the techno-imaginary crowd who loved their hardwired cyberpunk revelations. Yet, upon its initial theatrical run, Dark City won little applause and possibly the only critic who fought its corner was the esteemed Roger Ebert, who, with the not-inconsiderable aid of the advent of DVD, helped secure the film a lasting foothold in the hearts and minds of a small, dedicated and now ever-growing fan-base. Born from spectacular influences such as the afore-mentioned classics, as well as Total Recall and a vast amount of speculative fiction - both literary and graphic - and destined to nudge certain other moviemakers in a similar direction - step forward and be counted the Wachawski Brothers especially - Proyas' story was something that he had been tinkering with since the start of the nineties. Finally, after his theatrical cut was compromised by the studio suits and poor test screenings, the Australian director gets the opportunity to reveal his original, slightly longer version of the film. Both cuts are on this BD release, but I am only going to concentrate upon the freshly unveiled one which, whilst not all that different from its tired sibling, is certainly superior.

    Waking up, startled and virtually amnesiac, in a bath in a strange apartment, a small trickle of blood upon his forehead, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell in a rare role as a non-villain) is even more shocked to discover the dead body of a carved-up prostitute. Fleeing the scene in a panic, he becomes the lead suspect in the hunt for a serial killer who has been at large in the eponymous Dark City. In a desperate attempt to regain his past from the lightning-quick images flickering through his mind, he works out who he is supposed to be and learns that he has a wife, Emma (a much too young-looking Jennifer Connelly), from whom he is separated. With a confusing absence of daylight and something very strange indeed happening to the buildings around him at the stroke of every midnight, Murdoch's man-on-the-run becomes a focal point for a world that no-one even knows how to leave, let alone actually escape from. But things get a whole lot more complicated for Murdoch when he is pursued by a trio of menacing Strangers, shaved-headed albinos in trench-coats and heavy fedoras who seem to have abilities that can alter time and space. And then, in an even more perplexing turn of events, he finds that he, too, has similar telekinetic skills. With the police, led by William Hurt's unfortunately named Det. Bumstead, his green-eyed, bushy-browed wife and the gimpy, sinister Dr. Schreber (Keifer Sutherland affecting a breathless, stop-start vocabulary of teasing mumbo-jumbo) also chasing after him, Murdoch has no choice but to unravel the mind-boggling truth about what makes Dark City tick and just who is pulling all the strings.

    “I have become the monster you were intended to be.”

    It is a brilliant concept. The forever-shadowed world of perpetual twilight is marvellously evoked as Murdoch mooches around the grimy, ominous backstreets and tenements of a town that apparently breaks all the laws of physics on a regular basis. Proyas' ADD editing style ensures that our attention is continually diverted and our own detective work is kept on its toes. This Director's Cut, which runs for a further eleven minutes than the theatrical cut, actually smoothes out some of his kinetic 2-second shots, slowing the aesthetic flow of the film down, though not its actual pace. The atmosphere is aptly dark, but it is also cold and anaemic. The plight of the characters - Murdoch's search for the truth, Emma's struggle to regain the understanding and love of her husband, Bumstead's urge to close the case and Schreber's dubious and duplicitous double-dealing - is always intriguing, yet never moving. Even though this version of the film provides more depth to the characters with some new scenes, some extensions and some shuffling of familiar footage into a more linear drive that also allows them more space to breathe, it is hard to connect with or care much for any of them. This was always the case, though, and I would have extremely surprised if any version could adequately rectify this. But the film tells a visual and a cerebral tale rather than an emotional one. Proyas and his screenwriters Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer (who just loves such dark material, doesn't he?) are fashioning ideas and notions, not necessarily pandering to the sentimental needs of conventional drama. And, the thing that I have found with Dark City, is that the more I watch it, the more important such subtextual connotations and metaphors become and, consequently, how far less so the normally contrived relationships that a genre picture would, heavy-handedly, stir in.

    “There is no ocean, John. There is nothing beyond the city. The only place home exists... is in your head.”

    Heavily pregnant with metaphor and the abstract paranoia of Philip K. Dick, the story is also reminiscent of the Silver Age of sci-fi from Ellison, Matheson, Bradbury, Vogt and Farmer who between them coined the novelty of an everyman caught up in a society and world-changing odyssey, as well as the morally bereft realm of puppet-masters and insidious, perhaps malevolent overlords. At the time the movie came out, the public wasn't ready and certainly wasn't appreciative of such brain-teasing examination, yet only a year later, the same audiences positively lapped-up The Matrix. Without a doubt, the seeds sown by Proyas had penetrated, Thing-style, the collective psyche and, thus, Neo's exposing of the bleak smokescreen shrouding humanity was much easier to digest, understand and subsequently embrace. Dark City is nowhere near as big a movie and whereas The Matrix opens out on a much larger canvas, painting its own mythology, Dark City, ultimately, plays out like an extended episode of The Outer Limits, enjoying reaching its own boundary and nonchalantly leaving us to pick up the pieces and compose our own wider resonance for what we have just seen and learned. Thus, Proyas' movie again pays homage to the great sci-fi literature that prospered during the fifties and sixties.

    “When was the last time you remember doing something during the day?”

    “What do you mean?”

    “I just mean during the day. Daylight. When was the last time you remember seeing it?”

    The look of the film is worth examining in a bit more detail. Whereas Ridley Scott chose a chiaroscuro-drenched dynamic for Blade Runner - in that his darkness was continually penetrated by shafts of wandering light that, in turn, created marvellously surreal illumination across the set - Proyas and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski submerge their film in blacks of the deepest subterranean shade. The faces and eyes of Sewell and Connelly, especially, shine like beacons amidst the thick gloom. The 2.35:1 image is immaculately composed at all times, with camerawork and lighting that creates large patches of shadow and murk that could be hiding all manner of surprises and the set-bound look and feel of the film actually lends a haunting vitality to the mesmerising charade that is taking place. The palette of green, black and neon-strip splashes here and there evoke a midnight lustre of tired threat and debauchery, which is all the more worrying in that the film never seems to be populated by more than five or six people - humans, that is - at any time. Yet there is a tangible sense of jeopardy and after-hours foreboding that becomes addictive and almost attractive to the eye. Such beguiling lighting and framing is also reminiscent of German Expressionism, with some angles and shadow bedecked imagery harking back to the likes of Nosferatu, M and The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari. Bumstead's gibbering ex-partner scribbling the frequent motif of a spiral all over the walls and floor of his room, for example, or the eerie vision of Richard (Rocky Horror) O'Brien's Mr. Hand and his Stranger cohorts looming in doorways or corridors are effective throwbacks to the immediate and indelible staging of such classic pictures. One terrific moment has Murdoch about to escape their clutches up a flight of stairs, a flight of stairs that then stretches and elongates, nightmarishly, to twenty times the distance. The use of extreme close-ups and tremendous deep focus also recalls the work of Karl Freund, bringing in a visual sense of perpetual unease. Naturally, simplistic and overt perception-tweaks such as this are mere camouflage to distract us from the real deal taking place within, or rather below Dark City, but Proyas doesn't want to hamper such a fantastical and skewed mindset with explanations other than the merest essentials. Clues are speckled throughout, but a delightful shock is still guaranteed for those new to the movie. The removal of the irksome narration that was on the theatrical cut is another distinct improvement - another parallel to Blade Runner, there - as that tended to spell things out too glibly, meaning that a little more mystery is left intact now.

    “Remember John, never talk to strangers!”

    With able support from Ian Richardson's imposing, leather-clad manipulator Mr. Book and Bruce (Mad Max 2/Return Of The King) Spence as Mr. Wall, a nice, ahem, revealing turn from the ever-gorgeous Melissa George and a deranged, seen-the-light, Renfied-esque performance from Colin Friels as Det. Walenski, the film is kitted-out with a small, but effective array of plot-nudgers. But O'Brien is clearly having a field-day. His emphatic consciousness-sapping power - “Sleep now” - and wicked delight at ploughing through stolen memories and instincts are a delicious evolution from the prowling mob heavies from the forties leaning on defenceless witnesses. “I'm not Anna,” Murdoch's wife informs the leering reality-twister. “You will be soon, yes,” he casually replies, O'Brien relishing his own calm villainy. And for real blood-chilling ookiness, the Strangers also have that sinister, manky-molared moppet among their Gestapo-attired ranks. “Kill him!” the menacing midget declares wickedly at one stage.

    Another fine thing is the bombastic score from Trevor Jones, who really piles on the thunder. Recalling instances from his work for Merlin and laying down the foundations for such deep and ominous scores for From Hell and The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which actually steals the same orchestration quite shamelessly, his music here, whilst grand and exciting, can sometimes sound as though it has crashed in from another movie entirely. The chaotic rush of Jones' wild finale doesn't quite fit the visuals, coming on far too powerfully and energetic. However, I happen to love Jones' music, so I can happily let this go. The effects work is still a little primitive and underwhelming, though. Even years ago, when the film first came out, the extensive use of miniatures - again harking back to the movies that influenced it - looked patently phoney. In some ways the rising and shifting of the buildings during the “tuning” phase of the day reminds me of the great, though truly bizarre, Universal sci-fi B-movie from 1957, The Monolith Monsters, which featured immense alien blocks of ebony thrusting up into the sky and lurching freakishly about the desert setting. The visual representations of the telepathic shockwaves, which Proyas admits he overdid, also seem rather childish and cartoony nowadays, despite being improved for the new cut. But the spooky floating of the Strangers - part Cenobite, part 40's mobster - looks terrific and some of the imagery towards the very end is simply breathtaking in what it actually depicts taking place.

    “Do you know how to get to Shell Beach ...?”

    So, whilst I like Dark City quite a lot, I still think that Proyas wasn't exactly the right man for the job, even if it was “his baby”. His execution of the concept is horribly impersonal and often alienating. Try as I might, I just don't care whether or not Murdoch finds his reverent nirvana of Shell Beach, or his real, un-pilfered memories, with anything other than a superficial interest in having the story play itself out. Then again, the key to the movie is in the vibrant imagery, the deeper meanings and in the towering unfeasibility of it all. The movie belongs “out there”. It is deliberately wacky, masking its intellectual provocation behind the ever-shifting walls of noir and fantasy. Sewell is hardly charismatic - the undeniable facet of many a stern-faced villain that he has played - but he carries a weird intensity that is still somehow perfect for the part. We may instinctively know that he is the good guy in all this, but we still can't fully trust him, which is fine for keeping us on-edge. And even if Ian Richardson is positively single-minded in his diabolical intentions, O'Brien's overt malice is tempered by his eerily innocent thirst for knowledge. With both protagonists and antagonists so oddly etched, it is supremely apt that the movie keeps on throwing us successful wobblers all the time. Connelly is a sore point, though. Her acting isn't good and her appearance can occasionally be quite unpleasant for a leading lady - again, that is a personal viewpoint, so take it with a pinch of salt, but some of her close-ups are particularly embarrassing.

    Bold and flawed in equal measure, Dark City remains a hugely enjoyable enigma. The Director's Cut improves upon it quite a bit and the film's arrival on BD is something to be trumpeted for sure. Like many risk-taking and audaciously conceived projects, there are those that are entranced by it and those that either don't “get” it or have no interest at all in “getting” it. I think it is terrific to revisit such a visionary movie in a more considered, expanded version as finally, the creators get to have their say and not the studio execs or an unsettled test audience. Dark City won't ever attain the kudos, recognition or immortal acclaim that the Final Cut of Blade Runner will, but, in its own smaller way, Proyas' tale opens up a concept just as large and as far-reaching.

    Troubled, but gloriously ambitious and a dark trip well worth taking.