Dark City

Dark City is a noir mystery science fiction film that was released a year before The Matrix and is beloved by its fanbase. The film has an excellent cast, inventive but now dated visual effects and a fascinating story and plot that deal with identity and the human soul. It is on my all-time favorite movies list.

So why on earth is it mostly forgotten?

I think there are two major reasons. First, the movie is going on twenty-two years old. Second, the plot is a strange mix of hard sci-fi and mystery noir and the tone is intentionally uncomfortable. As much as I love the plot, the first hour will most likely leave the viewer confused.

Rufus Sewell is the main lead John Murdoch, and he spends a majority of the movie alone, basically talking to himself. He comes across as a good guy, bewildered and confused, trying to put together the pieces of his life after awakening with amnesia. The details of his life and the reason for his amnesia are both integral to the plot and mostly irrelevant to his character arc as he digs deeper into the mystery of himself and the nature of the city he finds himself in.

Jennifer Connelly plays Emma, John’s wife, and the main emotional lead of the movie. While John is trying to figure out the mystery, Emma is trying to find her husband. Her reasons and motivations are built on guilt and love, and her performance is subtle and sad. She exudes a sense of loss and sorrow, combined with a deep feeling of detachment with her life. While it is not a perfect performance, she gives Emma the right pathos to make us sympathize with her and root for her and John.

Kiefer Sutherland plays Dr. Schreber, a supposed psychiatrist, but with strange affectations, scars and a connection to the shadowy villains of the story. His role and motivations throughout the story are complex and occasionally monstrous to the point where you wonder who he truly is, and it totally works with the narrative. Sutherland gives an interesting performance as someone almost timid and terrified of everything around him, including himself.

William Hurt plays Detective Bumstead, the cop assigned to the central case the plot revolves around. He has a strong quiet presence about him, showing up as a good guy, but also an antagonist for our heroes John and Emma. His entire story arc deals with the nature of the central mystery of the city. It is an understated performance, but he gives the role a nice level of humor and likability. You end up rooting for him to uncover the plot as much as John.

Lastly is Richard O’Brien (Rocky Horror Picture Show), in an amazing turn as our primary antagonist. He exudes creepy through mannerism, body language and above all his unique voice. He doesn’t steal the show, but he is a standout in every scene he is in. He isn’t a mustache twirling evil monster, but at the same time he is never sympathetic, so it is kind of amazing how he is such a presence. There are other people he works with that are creepy in their own right, including Bruce Spence, whose sheer physical presence is intimidating.

Of course, another major character in the story is the city itself. It is a twisted, labyrinthine place, shrouded in constant night. The buildings are unusual and feel old and lived in, with almost generic names for locations, like "Hotel" and "Automat."  It is difficult to gauge the time period since there are no cell phones and the vehicles and clothes are from some point in the past, with no real way to tell when the story takes place. That timelessness adds to the mystery and atmosphere, making the city itself a puzzle to unravel.

The Director's Cut is the only version I recommend because it simply adds to the texture of the film without taking anything away, sewing up some minor plot holes and giving us a bit more character moments. One of the best changes made with Director's Cut is the elimination of an unneeded introduction narration which basically spoils the movie as it starts. The cut also restores the vocal work done by Jennifer Connelly, whose character is a lounge singer. While her voice is not as perfect as the studio version of the songs, her performance feels a touch more desperate, and adds a layer to what is happening in the story because she doesn’t feel quite right up on stage. Details and hints about the story are buried throughout the narrative, rewarding multiple viewings.

Bits:

On the Blu Ray/DVD there is a fantastic commentary by Roger Ebert that goes into detail why this is a great film.

Melissa George has a small but important role that leaves an impression.

There are a couple of female Strangers, but they are hard to spot.

I simply love the soundtrack to this movie, which is entirely instrumental except for the two songs performed by Emma. This diegetic approach to the music means there are no snappy pop-culture songs to set a mood. The two songs are kind of timeless as well, conjuring up a feeling of music from another decade while still feeling modern.

"Sway" is a cover of a song popularized by Dean Martin and arranged by Anita Kelsey. "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes" is another cover, also arranged by Anita Kelsey, of a song written by Benjamin Weisman, who wrote many of Elvis Presley’s hits.

This movie was filmed at roughly the same time and on some of the same stages as The Matrix.

Is this the best movie ever made? No. But it is a wonderfully unique and thrilling film. It combines several genres in a new way and manages to ponder the nature of humanity while not bogging us down in philosophical exposition. It still holds up after so many years, and I cannot recommend it more.

4 out of 4 Strangers

J.D. Balthazar is a confirmed nerd who loves most things sci-fi or fantasy-related.

5 comments:

NomadUK said...

I love this film. I just looked on my shelf, and, sure enough, I do have the director's cut version. Time to watch it again!

TJ said...

When I saw this review I never hear of this movie. Now I have seen it!

What a fantastic movie!

How could I have missed this back in the day?

J.D. Balthazar said...

Nomad, if you haven't I was deeply surprised how well it held up. The timeless qualities to the film help to keep it from looking older, unfortunately like so many other movies from that era.

TJ, that's wonderful. I'm so glad you gave it a shot. It had a normal theatrical run, but was not a wildy popular movie at the time. In fact, it did not make a profit, with a budget of 27 million and a box office of 27.2 million. Not that it matters, like other amazing movies that flopped at the box office it exists for us to enjoy.

TheShadowKnows said...

My wife and I actually saw it in the theater in 1998. Good movie.

Nigel said...

The Matrix was filmed a year after Dark City. It not only recycled some of the sets, but also shared some of the same visual effects artists (including me).