DVD of the Week – Review of Dark City (1998)


With the success of the visually stunning and emotionally involving The Crow (1994), director Alex Proyas proved his talent as a terrific new filmmaker. He almost immediately began working on the screenplay for Dark City. Co-written with Lemm Dobbs, writer of Kafka (1991) and The Limey (1999), and David S. Goyer, writer of the Blade trilogy (1998-2004), Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), Dark City was a classic in the making; and they didn’t even know it.

Roughly 13 years ago I watched Dark City in the theater for the first time and I remember being absolutely astounded. The cinematography is breathtaking: the assortment of buildings belonging to the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s; the elevated streamlined trains that soar over pedestrians’ heads; the 1940s and ’50s film noir visual style that superimposes shadows over brick walls and uses plenty of Dutch angles; and of course, the feeling of a contemporary version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926). This city also reminds me of the one from Blade Runner (1982) but this one, ironically, has a bit more life to it. It has less of the hustle and bustle of an overpopulated megalopolis and more the atmosphere of a properly captured forgotten moment in time.

Dark City is a detective story, a story of identity and finding one’s true self and purpose in life, a science fiction parable, and finally, at its center lies a love story.

Rufus Sewell plays John Murdock, a man who wakes up in a bathtub without any recollection of who he is. John is in a panic because of his amnesia, several newspaper clippings found in his overcoat pocket that might incriminate him as a serial killer, and a group of mysterious men, later dubbed The Strangers who are trying to find and capture him.

The first place that John runs to is to his wife Emma’s (Jennifer Connelly) apartment. He’d apparently had a fight with her because she’d cheated on him in the past but he truly doesn’t remember a thing. Emma recommends that John visit his physician for help, Dr. Daniel P. Schreber (Keifer Sutherland). Dr. Schreber has a limp, a deformed eye, and a speech impediment, all characteristics that the screenplay never forgets to eventually explain, and he claims to care for John. He tries to explain to him his memory loss, the recent serial killer aspect of his life, and about The Strangers. However, as one of the major themes of the film is time, Schreber and John are always, individually running out of it.

Enter Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt), who follows all of the leads and yet ends up nowhere. In fact, he ends up further away from the truth and so does John. Spirals are a visual motif in the film and Bumstead runs in circles. The opening scene in the film introduces John but it also, later, serves to tell us something important about Bumstead. When John awakens he is disoriented and stumbles around, accidentally knocking over a fishbowl. He picks up the fish and places it in bathtub water. Later, when Bumstead inspects John’s apartment, he asks a fellow police officer, “What kind of a killer stops to save a dying fish?” Inspector Bumstead is tired but is still acutely alert. He’s been on the beat for a long time and had seen everything.

The Strangers have affection for strappy leather clothing but they still wear overcoats and fedoras outdoors just like the rest of the population. They’re similar to vampires, with their leather fetish and sensitivity to sunlight, but there is nothing erotic or exotic about them. They also have the ability to “tune,” which is a form of telekinesis; it allows them to fly all across the city, create new doorways anywhere, and even push people away without physically laying a finger on them. The Strangers find out that John has gained the ability to tune and they quicken their pace to finding him so that they could understand what makes him tick.

As for the uniqueness of the city: it literally changes shape every time that the clock strikes 12 o’clock, be it am or pm, and every person in it mysteriously falls asleep; everyone that is, but John. He wanders around the dark city and watches as some buildings rise up out of the ground and others simply disappear back into it. Some buildings even slide horizontally across the streets to merge with other buildings. In one brilliant sequence in the film, as John attempts to outrun The Strangers he finds himself on the fire escape of a building. He turns around and sees that another building is sliding towards his. As he tries to enter the building his coat is caught on the corner of the fire escape and the tension is raised to a fever pitch as we wonder how he can escape being crushed.

The film is called “Dark City” mainly because perpetual night is upon the city, and yet its citizens don’t seem to notice anything is off. The citizens drone around in their meaningless jobs, day in and day out (pun intended) and The Strangers follow their every movement like rats in a maze. Just like the building that they rearrange on a daily basis.

Three years back a 10th anniversary director’s cut was issued on DVD and Blu-ray. The director’s cut is 15 minutes longer than the theatrical version; the intro monologue from Dr. Schreber is cut out and some of the soundtrack has been removed from the background of select scenes and replaced with sounds of buildings being “tuned.” The original special effects in the film were terrific in general, but they were never there for the sake of having special effects. They were minimal and they assisted the storytelling. The director’s cut has been treated for high definition and the special effects were wonderfully tweaked as well. A few more special effects were added and, somehow, it makes the final climactic showdown in the film even more epic.

I love this film. It’s one of my favorite films of all time and I have viewed both versions of it multiple times. I have also studied it frame by frame. I especially love the recurring motif of the spiral: when Inspector Bumstead falls asleep at his accordion, a spiral of milk spins in his coffee; when John inspects the subway system routes he notices that they’re laid out in a spiral formation; whenever a victim of the serial killer is found, spirals are found cut into their flesh; and when The Strangers inspect what aspects of the city to change, their miniature model of the city is spiral shaped. Every little thing that can occupy time and space does so meaningfully in this film, in every sense and without a wasting single shot. The film works on many different levels, multiple viewings only enrich the atmosphere and experience of the film even more.

This film is a form of perfection and I believe that will be remembered for a long time to come. It’s already garnered a classic status among film experts and I wish that more people would give this film a chance. Twenty years after its release Blade Runner had become an acknowledged classic thanks to word of mouth and critical studies; I don’t see why this film can’t become as popular.


New releases this week: Gnomeo and Juliet, I Am Number Four

6 responses to “DVD of the Week – Review of Dark City (1998)

  1. I saw this when it first came out in the theater, and like you was impressed by the whole package. A few years later, after I was asked to describe ‘The Matrix” to a friend, I said it was an inferior, pretentious knock-off of Dark City.

  2. An absolutely fantastic science fiction movie and it pains me to see how underrated it is! Great review Nir.

  3. Nir, this is a wonderful appreciation. I decided it deserved some more photos; I couldn’t decide which ones, so I just added them all.

  4. I see this film as an allegory of man’s (historically) recent attempts to rise from the muck of archaic thinking. John is ‘born’ from his watery womb onto the cold floor of reality. Like all of us he didn’t ask to be here; he simply is. He avoids indoctrination and sets off with an unencumbered mind to find out what the hell is going. In this sense he’s a Galileo figure: hounded by powerful forces but seeking nothing but the truth. His saving the fish demonstrates that people are born basically ‘good’, not tainted by sin as we’re told (in John’s case he’s told his original sin is murder). The ‘aliens’ are manifestations of the archaic ‘god’ impulse that seeks to explain everything by defaulting to some higher power. The constantly changing city mirrors our own existence where the only constant is change. The others in the city who blindly go about their lives are the ones who’ve swallowed the prevailing doctrine and simply accept it. But even among the walking dead a man in search of the truth can find some allies and John finds Bumstead. In the end Bumstead helps John break through the shell (beach) of ignorance into enlightenment (represented here by the arrival of the sun). His discovery of the cold hard truth (the Galilean revelation that he and his fellow humans are floating on a sphere in an indistinct part of the universe with no discernible way off and no easy answers as to how they got there) means that, though the path forward will not be necessarily easy, no one from this day forward can tell him or anyone else who they are and who they should be. As a result, the agents of fear and ignorance lose their grip and fade away and John and Co are left to make what they can from the world as it really is.

    I like the art direction too. Edward Hopper meets Anton Furst.


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