Show me anyone's top five list of sci-fi films known for style over substance, and I'll bet you Dark City is on it. It's one of those films where people either really love it, really hate it, or are just kind of disturbed by it. Alex Proyas likes to direct in the high concept/low budget space, and he's done some of his best work there. Dark City looks as distinctive as The Crow, and as original as Brazil. It's a visually unforgettable mashup of styles and influences that almost overwhelms you the first time you see it. It feels familiar in a very alienating way, and that's why the people who hate it lose their minds when you mention it. The same things that make it fun also make it a pain in the ass.
Viking Night: Dark City
By Bruce Hall
July 24, 2012
Maybe fun isn't the right word. Dark City gets its name from its setting, a bizarre, neo noir metropolis that looks like Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam designed it. The sun never shines, the streets are always wet, and it's obvious right away that something really wrong is hanging in the air. John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) notices when he wakes up in the bathtub in the film's opening moments. Someone else's blood is on his face, someone else's clothes are hanging nearby with someone else's keys in the pockets, and he can't remember who he is. He gets a mysterious phone call telling him that his memory has been erased, and he needs to leave immediately.
Oh, and there's also a dead hooker in the room. Murdoch flees, realizing he's in a hotel and has been living there for almost a month. Right behind him is a trio of pasty, black clad weirdoes right out of a Clive Barker flick. They have some kind of mental powers and seem to know a lot more about John Murdoch than John Murdoch does. Meanwhile, Emma Murdoch (Jennifer Connelly) is busy searching for her husband with the help of John’s nutty physician, who's actually the creepiest thing in the film so far. Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) warns Emma that her husband is a dangerously unstable amnesiac. He seems to know a lot about John Murdoch, too.
If there's one thing a noir thriller needs it's a hard-boiled cop, and when Dark City is a hooker down, they call Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt). Frank is a stone faced credit to the badge. His only flaw is that he looks like he drinks scotch, but doesn't. He picks up Murdoch's scent and begins tracking him across the city. He's not alone, though. The Men in Black are on the trail as well, and they seem to be pretty well acquainted with Schreber. Something strange is afoot as Emma reveals a broken marriage, John starts getting Mental Powers, and Inspector Bumstead occasionally plays the accordion.
The film adopts a grim, puzzling tone early on and while the grimness lets up, the weirdness does not. Not that there's anything wrong with that. A good mystery is mysterious precisely because it's puzzling. Forget about the memory loss; murder isn't in John's nature and his instincts tell him he's being set up. Something strange happens to everyone in town at midnight, except for John, and the Men in Black seem to be behind it. Schreber is clearly part of it, but it's hard to tell whose side he's really on. Something about Murdoch scares them, and promises to give him the upper hand should he discover it himself.
All of this is really neat, for about 20 minutes. And then, Dark City gives up most of its secrets. It just starts showing you cards, giving up information that shouldn’t be available until later in the story. By the time we get to the part where we usually find out the Butler did it, the only real mystery is whether or not John will win in the end. And since he's the protagonist, that never really feels in doubt. That the story takes place in such a stylized environment is helpful, but the type of person Dark City is aimed at will immediately identify the Men in Black with Hellraiser. They're a race of undead British people who all look like Pinhead without the pins.
A film this odd can afford to be a little derivative, but not when it pretty much blows its wad 40minutes in. After that, discriminating minds and restless nerds will just pick it apart. And that's what the haters really hate about Dark City - it's really NOT as original as it seems. It does save a few surprises for the appropriate time, but even then it doesn't take a savvy viewer to recall the dozens of books, movies, and television episodes that tell more or less the same story, which is basically:
"You humans ____ us with your primitive ____, so we have decided to ____ you, to better help us ____ you."
Right. Cue the part where Captain Kirk talks the computer to death. Been there, done that. Got the red shirt.
Dark City does remind me of a lot of other stories, but I happen to LIKE those stories. The plot is 90% post consumer material, but is it possible some stories get told so often because they're meaningful? I think the story’s borrowed nature is innocent - Dark City is an homage to everything that ever made Alex Proyas want to make movies. It’s part noir, part sci-fi pulp, part post modern existentialism, part Twilight Zone episode. It asks some pretty basic, obvious questions about human nature. When do our experiences stop defining us, and we start defining our experiences? And when we love someone, in what ratio do we love them because we know them, as opposed to who they are and what they represent to us?
The story has been told before, and on a lot of levels, this movie has been made before. But why should the great questions of life be left to our ancestors? You can make a lot of things out of the same bucket of Legos. Alex Proyas took a pile of toys that a lot of other people have already played with, and built something kind of unique with it. He successfully tells the story he wanted to, the way he wanted to, and when it's over it kind of feels good. And let's be honest - the movie looks fantastic. Dark City is a unique experiment that doesn't succeed on all levels, but it takes more steps forward than it does back. It’s the kind of film where even if you decide to hate it, the fact you thought about it at all makes it a success.