Hidden Gems: Dark City
By Kyle Lee
July 18, 2017
I vaguely remembered Dark City being advertised, upon its release in February 1998, but only knew one person who saw it in theaters and they told me it was just okay. So, I was surprised when I saw at the end of the year that it landed at #1 on Roger Ebert's year-end top ten list. That made me want to check it out and see why America’s most famous film critic would lavish such high praise on it. I did and just thought, "It was okay.” But then I started thinking more about the philosophy behind it, and most especially the images contained within it. In its own special way, Dark City is one of the most beautiful movies ever made. Not in the beautifully filmed rolling hills landscape kind of way, but more in the Blade Runner gorgeously realized and expertly shot kind of way. I knew I had to revisit it.
The first section of the movie is brilliantly constructed in a way to throw us a little off balance in our first viewing. Our protagonist, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), doesn't know who is he, where he is, or why he's there. Director Alex Proyas shoots with no camera movement, and the rapid cutting and seemingly disconnected storytelling puts us subconsciously in the shoes of our hero. Slowly, Murdoch starts to put together the strands of his life with the help of his wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly), the mysterious Doctor Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), and the hard-boiled Detective Bumstead (William Hurt), who is assigned to a murder case that John is the lead suspect in. But John is also being trailed by The Strangers, a pale group of men in trench coats and hats who have mysterious powers and seem to be around every corner, led by Mr. Hand (Richard O’Brien). Who are The Strangers and why do they want John Murdoch?
As John begins to get his wits about him, Proyas slowly starts letting shots linger a bit longer, the camera moves a bit more, and yet never lost is the remarkable attention to visual detail that Proyas displayed in the earlier sections. Also never lost is the paranoia draped over this movie. At one point, Bumstead meets with a former colleague who has apparently gone mad, obsessively drawing spirals and ranting that his wife isn’t his wife. Bumstead sees a connection with Murdoch’s own ranting of not knowing who he is.
The movie is chock full of references to other works, whether it's the landmark silent era epic Metropolis, the anime classic Akira, or the short stories The Tunnel Under the World and The Lottery in Babylon. Another influence, the 1995 French movie The City of Lost Children, is even quoted when one of The Strangers mentions that the city’s occupants "Walk through the city like lost children." I was always caught by the incredible German expressionistic architecture, the paintings of Edward Hopper, and the subconscious evocation of old school noir movies. Subconscious to me, because I didn't know much about noir at the time, though it has since become possibly my favorite genre of movie.