What if you aren't who you think you are? What if your memories are
manufactured? What if otherworldly beings slip into your mind while you
sleep, changing your identity as casually as one changes TV stations?
That's the premise of Alex Proyas' striking new sci-fi noir thriller. He
calls it "Dark City." Mental health professionals might call it "Paranoia
Using extremely quick edits, sensuous computer graphics, and a palette of
blacks, browns and blues, with an occasional splash of red, Proyas ("The
Crow") puts you smack in the middle of a nightmare from which you cannot
awake. The story employs a fractured dream logic, although attentive
viewers will have no problem following the narrative flow.
You could spend hours listing all the film's reference points. "Brazil,"
"Blade Runner," "Altered States," "Metropolis," "Twin Peaks," and "The
Prisoner" spring to mind, but there are many other touch points. The
bottom line, though, is that Proyas has crafted a vision distinctly his
own. "Dark City" has an amazingly rich texture and an extraordinary sense
of place. Even as the buildings themselves twist from one shape to
another, you feel as if you could walk down their desolate halls. Despite
periodic lapses into cheesiness, "Dark City" is memorable filmmaking,
more an experience than simply a movie.
It begins when John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in the bathtub of a
seedy hotel suite. There's a dead prostitute in the room, but he can't
remember if he killed her. For that matter, he can't remember anything
about his past. While desperately trying to collect himself, Murdoch
receives a call from a Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland,) urging him to
flee the room immediately. In short order, Murdoch learns that a lot of
people are looking for him. Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) wants
him in connection with a string of vicious murders. His wife Emma
(Jennifer Connelly) wants to make amends for cheating on him. And the
Strangers want him very badly. Bedecked in long overcoats as they
silently fly through the night skies, the pallid bald pursuers look like
the hellish spawn of Uncle Fester and Pinhead, filtered through a
So who are the Strangers and what are they up to? It would be best to
find out during the course of the story, but since Proyas spills the
beans in an unnecessary voice-over at the beginning of the film, I'll
recount them here. The Strangers are the last of an alien race,
conducting experiments on humanity from their headquarters deep beneath
the city. Possessed of a power called "tuning," they can stop time, make
people fall asleep with the wave of a hand, and reshape physical reality
through concentration alone. At the stroke of twelve every night (and
it's always night,) they implant memories and identities in various
citizens, then carefully watch the results.
But sometimes the implants don't go quite right, as evidenced by Murdoch.
Further complicating the Strangers' agenda is the fact that Murdoch is
also able to tune. Gradually, Murdoch changes from panicked victim to
avenging warrior as he pursues vague memories of an idyllic place called
Shell Beach, all while honing his newfound powers. Clearly it's just a
matter of time before he confronts the aliens and dares them to "Go ahead,
make my night."
Rufus Sewell handles Murdoch well, investing the character with just the
right amounts of urgency and strength. Hurt and Connelly turn in sturdy
enough performances, given the befuddled nature required of their
characters. Richard O'Brien, who created "The Rocky Horror Picture Show"
and played Riff-Raff, gives a stylish turn as Mr. Hand, lead hatchet man
for the Strangers.
The oddest performance comes from Kiefer Sutherland, affecting a bizarre,
quasi-Peter Lorre impression as Dr. Schreber. Sutherland says two...or
three...words then he...pauses and...breathes then he...continues
speaking. The halting, breathy speech style is just as annoying onscreen
as it was in that sentence.
Performances and plot aside, "Dark City" is a feast for the eyes. The
city has the worn look of New York in the 40s or 50s, with retro
funkiness and art deco flourishes everywhere. Computer animated shots of
the buildings morphing from one shape to another are dazzling, as are the
scenes of the Strangers gliding through the air. The effects are
occassionally cheesy, particularly when Murdoch has a literal battle of
wills with head Stranger Mr. Book (Ian Richardson,) but with a vision as
expansive as Proyas', the flubs are easy to overlook.
With it's roots firmly in the "Heavy Metal" school of adolescent
trippiness, "Dark City" makes no groundbreaking statements, but that's
fine. Proyas has taken a clever idea, added some phenomenal imagery and
created one whale of an apocalyptic dreamscape. During a season where
most movies look like photocopies of each other, "Dark City" is a most
Copyright © 1998 Edward Johnson-Ott