johnlink ranks DARK CITY (1998)

Any conversation regarding the best science fiction films in motion picture history has to include DARK CITY. Perhaps it is not a giant franchise like STAR WARS, or a technological breakthrough film like 2001, but DARK CITY is an absolute high-water mark in the area of neo-noir science-fiction. Criminally overshadowed by the inferior MATRIX released a year later, DARK CITY is a film which makes both an immediate and lasting impression. While the ending is not spoiled below, this is a movie which is MUCH better to see without any idea of what you are getting into. See the Director’s Cut if you can, if only because it eliminates a narration (forced on Writer/Director Alex Proyas by the studio) which reveals some key plot twists before you even get going. SPOILERS BELOW, so if you are looking for a recommendation just know that this may be my favorite science-fiction film of all time.

I watched DARK CITY (1998) on 8.15.12. It was my fifth viewing of the film, first in six years, and my first time seeing the superior Director’s Cut which adds roughly 11 minutes to the film.

Visually, DARK CITY is a movie which owes plenty to silent German cinema. A shot of one of the villains floating through the air, fingertips extended while sporting a high collar black coat, is eerily reminiscent of NOSFERATU. The bleak landscape of the city, tall dark buildings which put humans in shadow, borrows from METROPOLIS.  This story falls into the neo-noir genre as well, and the tone of a film like BLADE RUNNER is evident as well.

Mostly though, DARK CITY is a movie all its own. The tone is decidedly dark, and the aesthetic is off-putting.  On first viewing, as it gets rolling over the first half hour, this feels like a film void of logic, reality, or consistency. As the story unfolds, we learn about the architects of the city and explanations begin to fall into place; it all begins to make sense. I like to think of this movie as filling in the dark negative space of TRUMAN SHOW. Both 1998 movies contain subjects whose lives are controlled by unseen observers. Where TRUMAN SHOW is about hope and brightness and optimism, DARK CITY lives in the gritty, feeble, and sinister.

Stymied by the darkness, some amazing characters bring the film to life. Rufus Sewell is perfect as John Murdoch, the amnesiac trying to figure out his life. In his best career role, Kiefer Sutherland plays a wiry and frail doctor who’s experiments are at the heart of this mysterious city. Jennifer Connelly is appropriately vulnerable as John’s estranged wife Emma. And William Hurt really brings his Inspector Bumstead to life, a role which could easily have been forgettable. The various folks playing the city’s shadowy men are often less individually impressive, though that is sort of the point. They are a hive-minded people who are curious about the human race, and who want to find out what it means to have a soul. They are certainly frightening, and unquestionably dangerous. There can be no doubt that one does not want to cross paths with any of these folks. These villains are certainly impressive, and their influence can be seen in the characters of ‘The Others’ on the TV series Fringe.

The story has John waking up to a dead body and a lack of identity. He efforts to discover who he is, learning that he may be a mass murderer. Both his wife and Inspector Bumstead are after him as well (for two different reasons). John quickly learns that the world is not what it seems, and that the Doctor and The Strangers are in control. When the action begins to go down, as strange stuff grows stranger, it becomes very apparent that this is not a typical city.

Several themes run through this film. John is a man not afraid of questioning authority, even if it means his own demise. While MATRIX and DARK CITY are very different movies, some of the ideas (a chosen unique one with special powers, a villainous group with superhuman control over their environment) are shared. Where MATRIX is a global story, DARK CITY is a much more personal one. The struggle of John to discover his happiness does not come at the expense of others, but he isn’t particularly concerned about anyone but himself or his wife. Sure good things happen as a result of his efforts, but  city-wide happiness was never his goal. The theme of water being humanity’s life-blood is prevalent as well. The strangers hate water while John yearns to get to it. A major event takes place at a place called Neptune’s Kingdom. The post-climax resolution heavily hints at a water-as-paradise theme.

There are some elements of this film which fall slightly short. The climactic battle at the end is decidedly tame compared to everything else that has happened. It marks the first time that the film depends solely on its special effects rather than its practical set pieces, and the result is not one hundred percent satisfying. Tough questions remain at the end of the film, namely regarding resources and how long these people will be able to last. Other pieces of the film have been perceived as weakness by others, but don’t detract at all. Why do some characters change identity and others don’t? Well it seems pretty clear that The Strangers are not redesigning the entire city every single night. the same way a scientist may have hundreds of rats, but he only needs a few dozen for any given experiment.

This is a movie which works on every single level. The acting and writing are solid, and the filmmaking elevates the entertainment value. Alex Proyas is hit or miss. THE CROW is fairly good. I ROBOT works on a purely entertaining level. KNOWING is weak. DARK CITY is a masterpiece made by a man clearly in love with the subject, and clearly inspired by a very specific era in film history. This is a favorite film, and one which I would put up against any other science fiction movie.



One bonus point is for the amazingly realized art direction. This movie looks perfect. It is consistently sinister and always interesting. The other point is for the cinematography. I can say the same about the cinematography that I said about the art direction. This is a movie which is just a wonder to behold. It’s not always beautiful, but it is always interesting.



~ by johnlink00 on August 17, 2012.

4 Responses to “johnlink ranks DARK CITY (1998)”

  1. Nice review, it does make me want to see the film.

  2. […] DARK CITY (1998) […]

  3. Great review. I loved how you compared this to the Matrix. I too loved Dark City a lot more and agree that it has more rewatchability. I hope theaters re release the director’s cut. I would love to see that. Oh have you listened to the Roger Ebert commentary on the DVD. It is really good

    • I haven’t listened to the Ebert commentary. I need to. I know it was one of his favorite sci-fi films.
      I would looooooove a re-release of the director’s cut. I’d be in line for that in a minute.
      Thanks so much for your retweet as well!

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