Dark City: Review

Dark City:
Review

So in honor of Halloween, I’ve decided—not to write about a horror film. Instead, I thought I’d pour my heart and soul out to you, my beloved readers, and share with you the answer to the question you’ve all been asking. What exactly is my favorite movie? Actually Airman Xley, we were all wondering how practical it is to have a flying drive-in movie screen.

QUIET YOU! We’re going to talk about my favorite movie and that’s that! Everyone has one, and anyone that says otherwise either doesn’t watch enough movies or they’re too embarrassed to share.

Anywho, If you’ve read any of my other reviews or ever gotten into a movie discussion with me, you’ve probably already guessed it, but yeah, my favorite movie is Dark City. I absolutely love the film. So much so that the greatest compliment I can give to another human being is to offer to watch Dark City with them. Before I dive into exactly what it is that makes this film worthy of such distinction I just want to share what it means to me to have a favorite film.

The magic of the cinema may be dying, but every once in a while there comes along a truly remarkable movie. Not in the sense that it’s a mastery of acting or that it flexes its technical prowess, but instead because it ingrains itself so deeply in your subconscious that you never quite forget the emotions you experienced during your initial viewing. It’s in the reveal of Darth Vader being Luke’s father that we find surprise. It’s the shock we feel in a horror film when something jumps out unexpectedly. We remember the warmth of the tears running down our cheek during the first ten minutes of Up. We remember the elation when Sarah Connor finally kills The Terminator. Movies are just visual and audio stimuli. Great movies are emotions and inspirations. Favorite movies are an amalgamation of both.

It’s actually one of my favorite pastimes to ask folks about their favorite films. While it’s a great way to break the ice, it also provides invaluable insight into someone’s personality. You catch a glimpse of their hopes and dreams. You share in their values and ambitions. Favorite movies are a reflection of self, and I’d argue a frighteningly accurate one at that. It doesn’t have to be a ‘good’ movie or a ‘beautiful’ movie; it is your favorite simply because it is your favorite. You shouldn’t be ashamed if your favorite movie is something like Transformers, even if I judge you a little bit. Instead, you should celebrate what it is you love about it unabated. If you just really love the Paranormal Activity movies then shout it from a fucking mountaintop, my friend.

Dark City is my FAVORITE movie, and I say that knowing full well it’s not perfect. It’s flawed, and I’m not shying away from that fact. Perfect is relative only in the eyes of the individual and shouldn’t ever be a descriptor when recommending a film.  In the same way as we gather some ascetic pleasure from looking at a painting, it only takes one person disagreeing to make it inherently imperfect. Just remember that for every one person that absolutely loves The Big Lebowski, there’s someone that despises the mere mention of the film. Therein lies the magic found in cinema and is the reason to celebrate the joys and sorrows it brings.

So in honor of Halloween, I’ve decided—not to write about a horror film. Instead, I thought I’d pour my heart and soul out to you, my beloved readers, and share with you the answer to the question you’ve all been asking. What exactly is my favorite movie? Actually Airman Xley, we were all wondering how practical it is to have a flying drive-in movie screen.

QUIET YOU! We’re going to talk about my favorite movie and that’s that! Everyone has one, and anyone that says otherwise either doesn’t watch enough movies or they’re too embarrassed to share.

Anywho, If you’ve read any of my other reviews or ever gotten into a movie discussion with me, you’ve probably already guessed it, but yeah, my favorite movie is Dark City. I absolutely love the film. So much so that the greatest compliment I can give to another human being is to offer to watch Dark City with them. Before I dive into exactly what it is that makes this film worthy of such distinction I just want to share what it means to me to have a favorite film.

The magic of the cinema may be dying, but every once in a while there comes along a truly remarkable movie. Not in the sense that it’s a mastery of acting or that it flexes its technical prowess, but instead because it ingrains itself so deeply in your subconscious that you never quite forget the emotions you experienced during your initial viewing. It’s in the reveal of Darth Vader being Luke’s father that we find surprise. It’s the shock we feel in a horror film when something jumps out unexpectedly. We remember the warmth of the tears running down our cheek during the first ten minutes of Up. We remember the elation when Sarah Connor finally kills The Terminator. Movies are just visual and audio stimuli. Great movies are emotions and inspirations. Favorite movies are an amalgamation of both.

It’s actually one of my favorite pastimes to ask folks about their favorite films. While it’s a great way to break the ice, it also provides invaluable insight into someone’s personality. You catch a glimpse of their hopes and dreams. You share in their values and ambitions. Favorite movies are a reflection of self, and I’d argue a frighteningly accurate one at that. It doesn’t have to be a ‘good’ movie or a ‘beautiful’ movie; it is your favorite simply because it is your favorite. You shouldn’t be ashamed if your favorite movie is something like Transformers, even if I judge you a little bit. Instead, you should celebrate what it is you love about it unabated. If you just really love the Paranormal Activity movies then shout it from a fucking mountaintop, my friend.

Dark City is my FAVORITE movie, and I say that knowing full well it’s not perfect. It’s flawed, and I’m not shying away from that fact. Perfect is relative only in the eyes of the individual and shouldn’t ever be a descriptor when recommending a film.  In the same way as we gather some ascetic pleasure from looking at a painting, it only takes one person disagreeing to make it inherently imperfect. Just remember that for every one person that absolutely loves The Big Lebowski, there’s someone that despises the mere mention of the film. Therein lies the magic found in cinema and is the reason to celebrate the joys and sorrows it brings.

So in honor of Halloween, I’ve decided—not to write about a horror film. Instead, I thought I’d pour my heart and soul out to you, my beloved readers, and share with you the answer to the question you’ve all been asking. What exactly is my favorite movie? Actually Airman Xley, we were all wondering how practical it is to have a flying drive-in movie screen.

QUIET YOU! We’re going to talk about my favorite movie and that’s that! Everyone has one, and anyone that says otherwise either doesn’t watch enough movies or they’re too embarrassed to share.

Anywho, If you’ve read any of my other reviews or ever gotten into a movie discussion with me, you’ve probably already guessed it, but yeah, my favorite movie is Dark City. I absolutely love the film. So much so that the greatest compliment I can give to another human being is to offer to watch Dark City with them. Before I dive into exactly what it is that makes this film worthy of such distinction I just want to share what it means to me to have a favorite film.

The magic of the cinema may be dying, but every once in a while there comes along a truly remarkable movie. Not in the sense that it’s a mastery of acting or that it flexes its technical prowess, but instead because it ingrains itself so deeply in your subconscious that you never quite forget the emotions you experienced during your initial viewing. It’s in the reveal of Darth Vader being Luke’s father that we find surprise. It’s the shock we feel in a horror film when something jumps out unexpectedly. We remember the warmth of the tears running down our cheek during the first ten minutes of Up. We remember the elation when Sarah Connor finally kills The Terminator. Movies are just visual and audio stimuli. Great movies are emotions and inspirations. Favorite movies are an amalgamation of both.

It’s actually one of my favorite pastimes to ask folks about their favorite films. While it’s a great way to break the ice, it also provides invaluable insight into someone’s personality. You catch a glimpse of their hopes and dreams. You share in their values and ambitions. Favorite movies are a reflection of self, and I’d argue a frighteningly accurate one at that. It doesn’t have to be a ‘good’ movie or a ‘beautiful’ movie; it is your favorite simply because it is your favorite. You shouldn’t be ashamed if your favorite movie is something like Transformers, even if I judge you a little bit. Instead, you should celebrate what it is you love about it unabated. If you just really love the Paranormal Activity movies then shout it from a fucking mountaintop, my friend.

Dark City is my FAVORITE movie, and I say that knowing full well it’s not perfect. It’s flawed, and I’m not shying away from that fact. Perfect is relative only in the eyes of the individual and shouldn’t ever be a descriptor when recommending a film.  In the same way as we gather some ascetic pleasure from looking at a painting, it only takes one person disagreeing to make it inherently imperfect. Just remember that for every one person that absolutely loves The Big Lebowski, there’s someone that despises the mere mention of the film. Therein lies the magic found in cinema and is the reason to celebrate the joys and sorrows it brings.

Dark City—directed by the Australian director Alex Proyas (better known for his work on The Crow)—hit theaters in February of 1998. It stars Rufus Sewell (A Knight’s Tale), Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind), Kiefer Sutherland (24), Richard O’Brien (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and Academy Award winner William Hurt (The Incredible Hulk). Now, if you’re still scratching your head and thinking “how the hell have I never heard of this film?”—no worries. It was a flop, plain and simple.

It turns out there was another film that came out around the same time called Titanic, so suffice it to say no one gave Dark City any mind. In fact, it wasn’t until only recently that the latter started developing a cult following via the DVD release, and even then it’s for the most part generally relegated to obscurity save for the efforts of die-hard fans such as yours truly.

Want to know what the most underrated movie of the 90’s was? Yeah, you guessed it—Dark City. This movie is easily one of the most stylized films ever made, yet it’s far too often overlooked. It is literally and figuratively a treatise on the human spirit told through a mystery narrative with elements of surrealism and science fiction. Catch all that?Originally it was poorly marketed as a horror film, and that’s probably a contributor to its poor box-office success. The simple truth, however, is it’s a complex collage of mystery, drama, noir, horror, sci-fi, action, and fantasy, and a darn good one to boot.

Now as I’ve said before, it’s not perfect. There are a lot of minor irritants that might turn some people off, and I don’t recommend the film for everyone. In fact, I once had a very dear friend tell me it was “the dumbest thing I’ve ever made her watch” though my response was and still is “actually no, Six-String Samurai was the dumbest thing I ever made you watch.” Again, it wasn’t her cup of tea, but she has a heart of gold for humoring me. While I respect her opinion on movies, much more-so than others, I will only agree to disagree.  I believe this movie is worthy of my unwavering devotion and it is my mission to share it with the world. What’s more is I’m not alone in this endeavor. This was actually one of Roger Ebert’s favorite films, so much so that he named it his best movie of 1998. If you ever get a hold of the director’s cut DVD, he also gives a masterful intro to an already masterful film.

So what’s the damn story Airman Xley!?

Alright fine, no more preaching. A man (Sewell) awakens in a bathtub with no idea of his identity, whereabouts, or why he has blood dripping from the middle of his forehead. He stumbles into a run-down living room of a hotel only to receive a phone call from a mysterious Dr. Schreber (Sutherland) who tell him men are coming for him and that the man needs to get out now! Hastily he begins searching the room for clues to his identity, but not before discovering the brutally murdered body of a young woman. He runs for the stairs, narrowly missing a trio of tall, pale men in long black trench coats rising through the service elevator.

Upon entering the hotel lobby, he finds all the other guests and the concierge apparently asleep, or dead; he isn’t sure. But before he can leave the building, the clock strikes midnight, and they are all awoken in unison. The clerk addresses him as Mr. Murdoch and directs him to a nearby automat where Murdoch apparently left his wallet. Escaping into the dark of the city, John Murdoch begins his quest for answers only to discover more and more questions. Who are these pale Strangers after him? Who is the mysterious Dr. Schreber? Is he really a murderer? The city stretches out like a labyrinth of concrete and nightmares before him, and all he can do is venture forward.

“Hell, it was the 90s for christ’s sake. How else would you render telekinetic battles in a noirish cityscape?”

Eventually the audience is introduced to Murdoch’s wife Emma (Connelly)—a jazz singer who has had an affair with another man—and the fastidious Inspector Bumstead (Hurt) who is tasked with solving the serial murders for which Murdoch is the prime suspect. It is quickly revealed that the trio of trench-coats and their brethren—the Strangers as they are called—are alien beings that use dead bodies as vessels and have telekinetic powers. They have created a city in which they can experiment on humans by making them sleep each night and injecting them with false memories. One day you might be a pauper, and the next—a millionaire. Using their powers, they are able to refashion the city by willpower alone and literally grow and change buildings using underground machinery.

John must discover his true nature while at the same time avoiding capture. He initially finds a postcard with a picture of some place called Shell Beach. Sporadic memories come flooding into his head of a child running along the beach. Is that him as a child? How does he get to Shell Beach? Will he find his answers there that he is looking for? To compound matters further he has unknowingly evolved to share in the Stranger’s telekinetic gift. Will this help him in his journey or only make his vicious pursuers more determined?

And that is Dark City for you. Yeah, it’s pretty bizarre I know, but trust me; I cannot recommend a movie more than this. You will not find anything so complex and beautiful, yet refreshingly original. Another factor in why it was probably a cinematic failure is because in its initial theatrical release, the producers required the inclusion of an opening narration that explains what is going on to the audience instead of having them figure it out on their own. Talk about dumbed down. If you start watching this and you hear Kiefer Sutherland’s voice, just run out of the room. The director’s cut gets rid of all that nonsense and actually makes the audience think. Trust me when I say that you will know all the answers by the end of the film.

This movie is an experience and an absolutely brilliant one at that. The audience is provided little to no exposition and learns details at the exact same pace as Murdoch. The first act is designed to be confusing, so don’t fret. This is what makes the film so memorable for me. You are literally channeling raw emotions like confusion, anxiety, and fear simply by watching Murdoch stumble around on screen. Gradually you build understanding of what’s actually going on until you’re absolutely hooked going into the second act. By the third act you are John Murdoch and finding your own Shell Beach is on the forefront of your mind.

What I love about this movie is it doesn’t try to pander. It’s not self-consciously great or the least bit pretentious. It’s a highly eccentric narrative written by a highly visual director. What’s so special about that you ask? Directors don’t generally write movies. Proyas started writing Dark City in the early 90’s and took a break to make The Crow, which is very similar stylistically. Every scene is dense and in some cases overindulged simply because it makes for a killer scene.

As I mentioned before, you see a beautiful blending of Noir with German Expressionism like you might find in Nosferatu or Metropolis.  The color palette ranges from a foreboding blend of toxic green  and yellow cast by industrial lighting to more of a muted sepia tone. Again we see the use of limiting colors like you might find in Schindler’s List or Let the Right One In to draw attention onscreen. The crimson of the blood in an otherwise black and white world, the halo of unnatural light penetrating an otherwise dark and shadowy city; these are what make Dark City stand out visually. I actually was just reading up a little bit more about some of the production facts and I found that the average shot length for this film was only 1.8 seconds. This creates an enormous feeling of paranoia as we wander around the city with Murdoch.

We, like Murdoch, are living in the nightmare that is the city. It is the uncertainty and confusion that build our loyalty to characters and make us want and crave understanding. We search for meaning in films like this, and that is what makes them stand out time and time again. What I find so extremely refreshing about Dark City however, is that it doesn’t answer all the questions. There’s a lot of ambiguity in the film and you don’t get anything more than a superficial explanation for otherwise irrelevant things. How did the humans get to the city? Who cares? It doesn’t advance the plot any. We care about the here and now and finding our way to Shell Beach.

Movies are special because they exist in a different plane between what the director wishes to convey and what the audience takes away. Roger Ebert said it best in his introduction to the film:

Once they [the director] finish a film, it is no longer theirs – it doesn’t belong to them. It exists between the screen and the viewer. The viewer brings new ideas to the movie that otherwise weren’t imagined by the director. Whatever goes on in your head IS the movie.

What is means to be human; what is reality; the nature of individuality versus the collective; are we more than just the sum of our individual thoughts – these are all the themes Proyas brings to the table. The audience devours these with thought and yet still has the energy to ponder the complexities more. It kind of has that Truman Show feel to it at times, except it’s inherently more noir. I must have seen this movie at least 40 times now, and I’m always pleasantly surprised to notice a new detail or process a new theory of what the movie is truly supposed to represent.  It’s a dystopian film, so naturally it’s going to be a lot denser than you initially think.

Along that note, I find this to be the pinnacle of a trilogy of dystopian movies that came out in the late 1990’s. In 1997 you have Gattaca, in 1998 Dark City, and finally in 1999 you have The Matrix. They all primarily deal with similar themes, and in fact a lot of the same sets that were used in Dark City were also used in the production of the Matrix (like the stair chase scene for instance). So before you go saying The Matrix was the end all beat all sci-fi film, make sure you watch Dark City beforehand. After all, it came out first.

That being said, while I’d love to praise Dark City for being one of the most original and inventive films I’ve ever seen, it does borrow a lot visually from the previously mentioned expressionist films and especially the French sci-fi La cité des enfants perdus (The City of Lost Children). Regardless, Dark City does manage to create a very distinct visual style that is both  pleasing and nightmarish at the same time. The set design is sprawling and superbly done. The costumes blend perfectly into the noirish backdrop, and despite it having some cheesy visual effects and campy fight scenes, you’re still entertained. Hell, it was the 90s for christ’s sake. How else would you render telekinetic battles in a noirish cityscape?

The device the Strangers use to ‘tune’.

Do you know the way to Shell Beach?

Now, I can sit and purge praise all over this movie since it is my favorite, but I wouldn’t be a very good critic if I did. This movie isn’t perfect. The dialogue throughout the first act seems painfully unauthentic at times and you will easily grow to hate Kiefer Sutherland’s character of Dr. Schreber. Jennifer Connelly reprises her role of supporting character #1 and nothing more, though she does start to grow towards the middle of the film. Honestly even Sewell and Hurt are a bit irritating in the way they deliver some of their lines. I’m not sure if this was intentional to pay homage to some of the Noir classics, or simply because they couldn’t give authenticity to their dialogue.

Overall though, the acting is pretty decent for such a ‘weird’ movie. O’Brien absolutely knocks it out of the park as Mr. Hand the Stranger, and there is some occasionally chemistry between the other main characters. I’ll be the first to tell you, the strength of this movie isn’t in its actors or the dialogue. You’ll quickly become engrossed in the story and the visuals and forgot all about Kiefer Sutherland taking a breath after…every…single…word.  Honestly though I think Sewell is a fairly talented actor. I think he’s been grossly underused in Hollywood and I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing Murdoch. Apparently there were talks of Johnny Depp or even Tom Cruise playing John, but if we learned anything from Oblivion it’s that Tom Cruise just plays Tom Cruise in every movie.

What else can I say about this movie that makes it truly stand out? It relishes in some ambiguity. It forces the audience to actually think, but not in an overbearing pretentious sort of way like 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s full of incredible scores that are highly operatic and occasionally haunting. It has two of my absolute favorite scenes in film (which should be fairly easy to spot if you know I’m a hopeless romantic). Seriously though, this has to be my absolute favorite ending to a movie ever, and I’ve seen a LOT of movies for only being on this Earth a few decades. Dark City is every bit the cult favorite and one I sincerely hope you instantly fall in love with as I did.

The Bottom Line:

Dark City is a visual treat and one of the most memorable films you will ever see. With a refreshingly unique story and beautiful technical aspects, you cannot ask for a more rewarding way to spend two hours. I love the film. I love it for and its good aspects and in spite of all its bad aspects. Most of all, I love that I can name it as my all-time favorite movie despite it having a healthy amount of competition.  Watch the film and you might gain a little insight into my personality as well as just enjoying a truly amazing film.

In the same manner that the film questions if we are indeed merely the sum of our collective parts, I ask you to not focus on one thing or another in this film, but rather to appreciate what it accomplishes as a whole. Yes, it has its flaws, but don’t let them define Dark City. I celebrate this movie for a reason, and that reason is that it is a truly beautiful and thought provoking dreamscape. We’re all searching for our own Shell Beach, and sometimes you just have to fire telekinetic beams at your enemies to get there.

The Bottom Bottom Line:

Surrealism meets noir with aliens, telekinetic powers, and a visual style that’s as timeless as it is unique.

My one last request, if you’ve made it this far in the review, is to share your favorite film(s) and what it is that truly makes you love them. Please leave a comment below or on the Facebook page. Write a few words or a paragraph, shout it from a mountaintop, or simply celebrate a little something of what defines you.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This