Viking Night: Dark City
By Bruce Hall
July 24, 2012
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.
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.