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Dark City

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Dark City

Starring: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland
Director: Alex Proyas
Rated: R
RunTime: 120 Minutes
Release Date: February 1998
Genres: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Suspense


*Also starring: Jennifer Connelly, Richard O'Brien, Ian Richardson, William Hurt, Melissa George, Bruce Spence



Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

"I can do anything I want just so long as I concentrate," brags John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) in Australian director Alex Proyas's movie, the director's lunge to duplicate Fritz Lang's fame. The director does not quite share his hero's worthy attribute: focused though he may be on providing a classic tale of the woes of conformity and the benefits of individuality, he succeeds principally in creating visual grandeur. Perhaps that's more than enough, as Proyas's targeted audience is probably the 17-25 year old set who dig the sophisticated comic books which have emerged during the past two decades.

Proyas's devotees, mavens of the sci-fi-horror genre, have looked forward to the release of this film, having adored his best known work, "The Crow" (1994), which became known far beyond the intended audience because of a tragedy which took place on the set. In that film Brandon Lee, in the role of Eric Draven--who, with the help of a crow seeks vengeance after he and his fiancee are murdered--was accidentally killed just before the conclusion from a gunshot wound, digital magic allowing him to complete the job after his demise. Like "The Crow," "Dark City has a visual style courtesy of cinematographer Dariusz Wolski which owes much to the study of comic books, called graph novels by their fans. Using extreme motions to evoke the most startling effects, Wolski would swoop high above his city and then suddenly dip, exploiting shadows, and creating an expressionistic embellishment of edifices. This mobility has an effect that would greatly please Charlie Chaplin, whose "Modern Times" (1936) attacks the impersonality of the machine age and Fritz Lang, whose "Metropolis" (1926) fantasizes a futuristic city and its mechanized society with an upper-class young man's abandonment of a life of luxury to join oppressed workers in a revolt.

Few would argue that Proyas's plots take precedence over his visual perceptions. This time around, though, Proyas transcends the simple story of vengeance which drives "The Crow" and reaches for a more transcendent motif: humankind's struggle for individuality against the pressures of conformity. Ayn Rand would be proud of him. His principal character, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), finds himself in a seedy hotel, awakening to find a dead prostitute in his room, and soon discovers he is wanted for a series of brutal killings of women in the same profession. He remembers nothing, however, unaware of his guilt or innocence in the slayings. He might as well be a reborn babe, springing to existence yet thrust immediately into the throes of mid-life crisis. He may or may not be married to the lovely Emma (Jennifer Connelly) but is told that he has become estranged from her because of her alleged affairs with other men. Murdoch is pursued by an obsessed police inspector, Frank Bumstead (William Hurt), and by a far more dangerous trackers known as The Strangers. These Magritte-style, conjunctivitis-afflicted refugees from a Charles Addams strip came from another world where they are dying of conformity and seek to enter the bodies of earthlinks whom they are studying with the help of Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland).

Anyone over the age of twenty-five is likely to be confused by the plot logistics, which involve the imprinting of memories (via injections straight into the forehead) and by the strange manner of speaking of the weird Dr. Shreber, who seems to utter three words at a time, pause, and then continue his perplexing train of thought. His vocal pattern mimics the jaggedness of the story line, though we do learn that he is in effect a double agent, pretending to help The Strangers while actually helping Murdoch to drive them out of the city. The Strangers relentlessly pursue John because he is the one human being who shares their ability to do Tuning: to alter the environment (allowing doors to appear out of nowhere in brick walls, shoving tall buildings together at will, even changing the architecture from contemporary to art deco and redesigning room, creating palatial splendor from a workman's hovel.

As The Strangers fly blithely through the air, bald heads gleaming, eyes turning redder while they are enveloped in a sickly-green light, we may appreciate the special effects (created in a Sydney, Australia studio) as we watch a city which seems to emerge from the 1940s turn into a cold, impersonal, machine-like organism. But we've been there before. We've seen albino-style bogeyman in the cheaply-made 1950s sci-fi thrillers, and our vampire pictures have processed ghouls who like The Strangers shun light, humanity, and bright colors. Sewell does well, however, as the terminally scared prey who must use his frightful powers against the Strangers, though the 6'3" William Hurt seems embarrassed by his role as an inspector with a penchant for detail, in no way the sort of characterization he has enjoyed in three-dimensional plots such as "The Big Chill" and in the more compelling sci-fi adventure, "Altered States."

Even the slogan used to rouse the heroes to action has been used before, by New York's Mayor Giuliani, who pledged successfully to "take back our city."

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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