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Dark City Print E-mail
Wednesday, 29 July 1998

Dark City

New Line Home Video
MPAA rating: R
starring: Rufus Sewell, William Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, Ian Richardson, Richard O'Brien
release year: 1998
film rating: Four stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

There is only a tiny handful of SF movies written directly for the screen that have even some of the richness, bravado and logic of published science fiction, but the plot of "Dark City" could have sprung from the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. A story that was then adapted to a high-quality comic book, like Heavy Metal. Even if it doesn't at first look like well-conceived science fiction, it is; there are a few elements that seem to stem more from a desire for impressive design than from logic, but they're rare. "Dark City" is a fast-paced, exciting and intelligent SF movie, brilliantly designed, boldly conceived; it's "comic book" in that the design is so spectacular and so much a part of the story, not in the sense of being slick but trivial.

Initially, it looks like a hyper-stylized, neo-but-futuristic film noir in the vein of "Brazil" or "Trouble in Mind," but "Dark City" is much more like "Blade Runner" in that its mise-en-scene is not stylized; what we see on screen is exactly the way things look to the people in the story. The buildings are this stark, the cars are this generic, the streets are either furiously busy or curiously vacant.

In "Dark City," almost everything eventually falls neatly into place, even odd elements like Kiefer Sutherland's weird performance, the of-no-period cars, the narrow streets with few stores, the towering buildings. Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" is the major stylistic influence here (and the disc includes an essay on comparisons to Lang's silent classic), but Proyas and his team have something in mind other than the depiction of an oppressive future society.

After a narrator informs us that aliens came to Earth seeking the element that made us human, the movie opens as 12:00 strikes, and everyone, everywhere, suddenly falls asleep -- everyone, that is, except twitching, grinning Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland). John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakes with a start in a bathtub, in a large, dingy apartment. In the next room, he's frightened to discover the bizarrely slashed body of a woman. He flees just as the police arrive, headed by Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt), who wears a fedora and plays an accordion in his off hours; this is one of a series of ritualistic murders of prostitutes. We also learn that John Murdoch has unusual powers: he can change objects with sheer thought, although he doesn't realize quite how to use this ability at first. He's more concerned about getting home to his wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly), and to work out his fragmentary memories of a childhood spent at sunny Shell Beach. In this shadowy city, it always seems to be night. The aliens, which look like a cross between Nosferatu and Pinhead (from the Hellraiser movies), are after him, and in league with Dr. Schreber. And gradually we learn more and more....

All of it is parceled out neatly in the script by Proyas, Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer, so that we learn what's going on at the same pace that Murdoch does. The script not only keeps us guessing; more importantly, it keeps us wanting to guess; it's not an intellectual puzzle -- you can't deduce what's going on -- and it's not intended to be.

All the lead characters are very well-knit into the fabric of the story -- which could have been told from the point of view of the suspect, the detective, the doctor or the suspect's wife. And at times, it is told from each of their perspectives, though we return again and again to Murdoch, who eventually proves to be crucial to all that's going on.

There are some flaws in the story; we are never told clearly enough just why Murdoch can "tune" in the manner of the Strangers (as the aliens are called), or where he gained this ability. The Strangers are said to have a group mind, so why do they even talk to one another? Also, one of the Strangers, Mr. Hand (Richard O'Brien), is given Murdoch's memories, but this doesn't play a significant role in the working out of the story; in fact, it seems more intrusive than anything else, but it's good to see O'Brien back being weird again. (He was one of the creators of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and played Riff-Raff on stage and in the movie version.)

The movie's cast looks hand-picked, as if Proyas got his first choice for every role (though since this was made in Australia and doesn't have an enormous budget, that's undoubtedly not true).

Technically, the film is outstanding; the production design by George Liddle and Patrick Tatopoulos is simply brilliant, given the story, as are the special effects. from companies I've not heard of before. The filmmakers admit they were inspired by "Metropolis" and the films of Wim Wenders; you might also be reminded of David Lynch, in that colors are intense but dark, the look is almost rapturously sensual, and there's a feeling of decay. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski is the new Prince of Darkness, given his work here, on "Crimson Tide" and on Proyas' "The Crow." The Panavision images are dark, beautifully composed -- he often uses intense symmetry -- and strikingly handsome.

"Dark City" may break no new ground thematically, and the story, while novel and interesting, was perhaps a little too intellectually-conceived -- the movie didn't do well at the box office. But Proyas reveals his complex premise step by step with gleaming clarity, and he keeps up a driving, thriller-movie pace at the same time. That's a much harder pair of achievements than most are going to realize; "Dark City" is a well-crafted, intelligent science fiction movie, one of the best of the 1990s.

The DVD is also impressive, an entry in New Line's excellent "Platinum Series." It includes two narrative tracks, a busily chatty one by film critic Roger Ebert, a major champion of the film, and one with many of the filmmakers. Instead of just a long description of the film as it unwinds, a selection was made (evidently by Ebert) from a series of interviews; the comments are interesting, well-placed and extremely well-edited. There are plenty of other extras as well: the inevitable trailer, a "Find Shell Beach" game, biographies, the essay comparing "Dark City" to "Metropolis," and so forth. The disc even includes both the pan-and-scan and letterboxed editions of the movie. If this is the future of DVD packaging, I'm all for it.

more details
sound format:
Dolby stereo
special features: Including both letterboxed and panned-and-scanned prints of the film.
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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