Dark City Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

Dark City box art

With his second directorial feature, "Dark City", Alex Proyas brings us a startling vision of a bleak alternate reality, while touching on existentialism, memory, and other ponderous philosophical issues. This blend of science fiction and the cinematic stylings of Fritz Lang exudes the director's penchant for the literary works of Franz Kafka, most notably "The Trial", a story of a man accused of crimes that he has no knowledge of, while being pursued by a group of shadowy adversaries with an unknown agenda.

The story of DC, scripted by Proyas, and fellow writers Lem Dobbs ("Kafka") and David S. Goyer (who scripted Proyas' first feature "The Crow"), opens with John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell, last seen in "Cold Comfort Farm") waking up in a bathtub in a fleabag hotel. He has no idea who he is, how he got there, or why there is a dead prostitute in the next room. He receives a mysterious phone call from the physically-misshapen psychiatrist Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland, who also played another troll-like figure in "Freeway"), warning him of a group of 'Strangers' that are after him. Apparently, according to the prosaic opening voice-over, the Strangers are a dying alien race that came down to Earth in search of a cure for their own mortality, and the key to prolonging their lives lies in understanding the human soul. Armed with a telepathic ability that can shape reality, called 'tuning', they roam the streets of the unnamed city in a Nosferatu-like fashion, carrying out their malevolent experiments on the unsuspecting populace.

In his first confrontation with the Strangers, John Murdoch learns that he too has the ability to 'tune', an ability which he uses to escape his pursuers. Meanwhile, Detective Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) finds the body that was in John's hotel room, and believes that John is the 'Street Walker killer' that he has been searching for. The search for his identity brings him to his torch-singer wife Emma (Jennifer Connoly, also last seen in "Cold Comfort Farm"), mysterious glimpses of his childhood in a sunny place called 'Shell Beach', the mysterious subterranean activities of the Strangers, and the hidden agenda of Dr. Schreber.

In many respects, DC is a lot like last summer's "The Fifth Element". Like TFE, DC is a pastiche of sci-fi conventions, resulting in an experience of cinematic deja vu. Many of the elements of the story recalls some of the best episodes of "The Twilight Zone", such as the ability of the Strangers to freeze time, manipulate the cityscape, change the identities of the city's residents, and the inability for the city's residents to remember the past or notice that the sun never shines. And like TFE, the production design and special effects excel in DC, taking you on an intoxicating trip into a surreal retro-Forties urban environment, stacked with coin-operated Automats, smoky nightclubs, and seedy hotel rooms, all beneath the stark concrete and steel skyline. However, unlike TFE, DC actually attempts to be thought-provoking, touching on some existentialist philosophy, such as the role of memory in shaping one's identity and the perception of reality, but unfortunately, Proyas doesn't dwell too long on these weighty issues, shunning more exposition of these topics in favor of a silly-looking action finale that reminds me of old Hong Kong black-and-white serials of the Fifties (the battles in these serials had the adversaries stick out their palms and stare at each other, hard).

The narrative style that Proyas employs in DC seems to point to a phobia for audience boredom. On one hand, the most noticeable aspect of DC is the fast pacing-- in fact, too fast. The dialogue is clipped, and as soon as a character finishes their line, a scene change occurs immediately, and the film plows into another conversation. Five seconds later, the same thing happens again. After a while, this rapid-fire editing can be confusing, leaving little time for the audience to digest the vast amounts of plot information being thrown at them (which of course, means that you HAVE TO PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT'S GOING ON). On the other hand, Proyas also doesn't allow the audience to make the mental connections of the disparate plot elements themselves-- instead, at regular intervals, he has a character spell everything out in a matter-of-fact manner to keep the audience updated.

"Dark City" is certainly no "Blade Runner", which many hoped it would be, but if you enjoy thought-provoking science fiction, such as the heavily-metaphysical episodes of "The Twilight Zone" or "Star Trek: The Next Generation", then the gothic vision of "Dark City" is for you.

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