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Dark City, written by Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs, and David S. Goyer from the story by Alex Proyas, directed by Alex Proyas, 1998, 100 min.

Alex Proyas has a lot to answer for with regards to his new movie, Dark City. Women as sex objects, or naked, mutilated corpses. A bit of a ransacking of the fantastic storehouse of images that is our century of film. An editing job that betrays his background in music videos. An unexplained part of the premise that is absolutely crucial to the ending (how did Murdoch get these powers?). These are the reasons why I feel a little defensive about giving Dark City top marks -- I understand and agree with many of the issues raised by reviewers critical of Proyas's work. But the point remains that I loved this movie. This does not make me forget some of Proyas's underlying sexism (or the other problems), so hopefully this review will manage to rave about Dark City and still regard its flaws in a balanced manner.

The movie opens with a man named Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakening without memory of who he is, his name, or what he's doing with a murdered prostitute in his apartment. The plot follows from there logically enough, given the premise, even though many complained about the involuted storyline. Perhaps the movie was too dark for some people to make out what was happening. It seems that Murdoch has gained some mental powers that have attracted the attention of the mysterious Strangers. Will Murdoch buckle under to these dark figures? Will he rebel and find out the true nature of his home city? Generally speaking, I don't appreciate movies that go about spoonfeeding their audience, and that's why this movie was such a treat for me. Granted, Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) had an annoying little voice-over right at the beginning, and I'm not going to make excuses for that, even though it was more mysterious than informative. And yes, sometimes the characters did over-explain to each other, but whenever any of that was directed to Sewell, whose memories were completely wiped, it was legitimate enough.

The premise allows for some nice exploration about memory and identity. Proyas ties this nicely to the character development, which was a big part of the appeal of the movie for me. Sewell put some heart into the somewhat typical role of an amnesiac. Jennifer Connelly also has a stereotypical role as Murdoch's wife, as the love interest, and she pulls it off with style and passion as well. William Hurt takes the typical role of a smart detective and invests it with dignity and humanness. It's a real tribute to the actors (and the casting job) that they could go beyond their standard character types and create something interesting. The cardboard cutouts these actors started with came from the film noir aspects of the movie, aspects which tie in nicely with the overall atmosphere of the movie but hinder the character development.

The look of the movie is astonishing, as well as coherent and consistent. The atmosphere actually has meaning, which is made quite clear when we find out the nature of this dark city. It also leads to a gorgeous ending -- more on that in a minute. The modelwork was a bit lame during the city change sequences, but even that had a pseudo-artsy excuse -- toys in the hands of the real masters of the city. Many of these images are borrowed liberally from the rich history of science fiction cinema. Lang's early masterpiece Metropolis is particularly evident as an influence on this movie (which is pointed out in some of the extras on the DVD). Other sequences reminded me of The City of Lost Children or Brazil, two other dark movies that rely heavily on their images. In print, this would be known as an allusion, but this kind of visual allusion doesn't always get the same kind of favourable critical response. Proyas has created an astonishing synthesis, but the parts are still quite recognizable.

Dark City sits apart from other derivative movies by the sheer number of moments that made me exclaim in wonder. In my hierarchy of movie ratings, there need be only one such moment of genius to put a film in the top ranks -- Dark City had these moments scattered throughout the movie with abandon. I loved the point where Mrs. Murdoch decides to trust her husband, based on what he has said (and this, of course, in the context of constructed memories and what that says about human nature). I gasped when Sewell breaks through the brick wall with his powers to discover the true nature of the city -- a truly devastating revelation. This is matched by the ending, with its absolutely gorgeous lighting, and the character played by Connelly who was once Mrs. Murdoch and now says, "I'm Anna." A happy ending? Possibly, possibly not. But it fits deftly with all that has come before.

See my review of the soundtrack for more information about the music of the movie.

So would I recommend the movie? Yes, with the qualifications already noted. Dark City has a few flaws, but Proyas is a visionary whose work is worth looking out for. He has not been a prolific director but I'm curious to see what he will do next.

DVD Note: Dark City is available in a decent DVD edition. It has both fullscreen and widescreen, on either side of one disc, so those who want to watch the movie in widescreen as the director intended won't accidentally buy the fullscreen version. The movie has two commentary tracks, one by Roger Ebert (the only other movie that I have seen with an Ebert commentary was Citizen Kane, which shows how highly he regarded Dark City) and the other by a mixed bag of people who worked on the film, their comments edited together somewhat helter skelter. The DVD has only a few other extras. They include some filmographies, a comparison to Metropolis, what Neil Gaiman thought of the movie, and other odd items.


First posted: March 24, 1998; Last modified: February 19, 2004

Copyright © 1998-2004 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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