First there was darkness. Then it got stranger.
Dark City is every critic’s nightmare. It is the kind of film you just cannot talk about. The plot relies on its twists and the gradual reveal of new information so much, that even explaining the general premise - or just revealing the genre! - could spoil the experience for certain viewers.
Luckily, director Alex Proyas of The Crow and iRobot fame takes pity on the reviewers and avoids this dilemma. Dark City summarises itself within the first five minutes:
“First, there was darkness. Then came the Strangers. They were a race as old as time itself. They had mastered the ultimate technology—the ability to alter physical reality by will alone. They called this ability ‘Tuning.’ But they were dying. Their civilization was in decline, and so they abandoned their world, seeking a cure for their own mortality. Their endless journey brought them to a small, blue world… in the farthest corner of the galaxy. Our world. Here, they thought they had finally found… what they had been searching for.
My name is Dr. Daniel Poe Schreber. I am just a man. I help the Strangers conduct their experiments. I have betrayed my own kind.”
This is where the story of John Murdoch begins. He wakes up in the bathtub of a hotel room, with no recollection of who he is or how he got there. When he stumbles upon the corpse of a woman in the bedroom, he is shocked to conclude that all evidence points towards him. Evading the police, Murdoch sets out to connect the dots about his past; to prove to himself that he is not a killer. Meanwhile, Schreber is desperately trying to find him before the Strangers do.
Visually, Dark City is flawless. There is not a badly framed shot in the entire film.
Build entirely on a sound-stage, there are no outside-shots or scenes that feature natural lightning. The set-design mixes classic and modern elements seamlessly, creating a strange – yet timeless – atmosphere that hints at the city’s true nature early on, without actually giving anything away. The world of Dark City feels appropriately claustrophobic. Its long shadows and stark contrasts are reminiscent of classic film-noir aesthetics and early German expressionist films, like the 1920 horror-classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Proyas uses his background as a director of music videos to its full advantage, making every scene count as if he still only has three and a half minutes to make an impression on the audience.
The acting is overall solid, but uninspired. Special mention goes to Jennifer Connelly and William Hurt, who both somehow manage to emote less than the supposedly soulless Strangers. Hurt has a good enough excuse; his character is a pastiche of stoic pulp-heroes. Connelly, on the other hand, might have been able to do more with a more substantial role. There is not much to the character of Emma Murdoch, she serves her purpose in the plot and then merges into the background to be forgotten until her next appearance.
Casting Rufus Sewell as John Murdoch was an interesting choice to make. An unfamiliar face to American audiences at the time, the English actor’s eternal wide-eyed stares make him seem believably confused and lost. As the audience-surrogate Murdoch does not seem to have much of a personality of his own, but this plays well into the film’s ideas about the nature of identity.
There is only one performance that stood out. Kiefer Sutherland’s Dr. Schreber is delightfully snively and full of himself. Perhaps this is unthinkable for those who only know him as 24’s gun-toting federal agent Jack Bauer. Rightly so; Sutherland has not played a part quite like this before or since.
As the only character who knows exactly what is going on, Schreber needs to be nuanced. He knows the history of everyone in the city; mainly because he helped build and reshape them on numerous occasions. Just being aware of this adds another layer of meaning to his interactions with the other characters. His name is derived from German judge Daniel Paul Schreber, the author of Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, which inspired parts of Dark City’s plot.
Some viewers may come to find Schreber’s perpetual breathlessness grating, but it does help paint an image of the kind of person he is. Briefly seeing him as he was before the Strangers caught hold of him makes for an interesting contrast
In the end, the Dark City is let down by what is meant to be the grand finale. After nearly two hours of build-up, the last ten minutes wrap everything up almost too neatly. The Strangers quickly lose their appeal as villains. Although they seem quite creepy at first, their stilted way of speaking soon makes them seem rather silly and overall non-threatening. They also share the curse of many other sci-fi species of their kind – for a supposed hive mind without any individuals, it is quite easy to tell them apart by unique quirks and actions. On the upside, fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show may recognise Richard O’Brien as the amusingly hammy Mr. Hand.
The film also sabotages itself early on with the inclusion of the opening narration. It is unnecessary and harms the story more than it helps, making it hard not to feel cheated out of an experience that could have been so much more. Mentioning the Strangers - and Schreber’s involvement with them - takes any impact out of the eventual reveal. All cards are on the table from the get go, although they really shouldn’t be.
Dark City was not a success upon release. It only barely broke even on its estimated 27 million dollar budget at the box-office, but was popular enough to prompt the release of a director’s cut in 2008. The director’s cut features several improvements compared to the theatrical release. The opening narration is mercifully absent, and there are a few additional scenes that develop minor characters somewhat. Most of the originally quite clunky special-effects have been updated with more modern CGI.
Stylistically Dark City has aged well, but the story may seem retroactively trite. A good example of intelligent science fiction, the film raises interesting questions about reality, choice and the nature of the soul. It shares a lot of ideas with later films, such as The Matrix and Inception - both of which are better known. It may be difficult for some viewers to view Dark City with fresh eyes.
Still, it stands out as one of the most interesting films of 1998. Sci-fi fans will not regret giving this one a try. If they can, that is. Unfortunately, DVD and Blu-ray discs of Dark City have been out of print in the UK for a while now.