The second film in my only match-up in the fourth round of the 90s US Bracket!
Screenplay By: Lem Dobbs, David S. Goyer & Alex Proyas
Directed By: Alex Proyas
There is a long and storied tradition of science fiction films that transcend the possible corniness of the genre and challenge the mind and assault the visual senses. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet Of The Apes, Blade Runner, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet and more all provided the visual imagery that sci-fi fans expect but they also gave us deep, meaningful topics to think about by questioning core truths of humanity. For some reason the general public has never taken to this type of science fiction, as evidenced by the low box office numbers for the majority of these movies, and that is a shame. The questioning of existence isn’t confined to Medieval European settings or the second World War. Dark City is a film that fans of science fiction will undoubtedly know about, but it is a film that takes on issues all moviegoers should think about. Dark City joined the aforementioned iconic science fiction movies upon its release in 1998, both in terms of visual style and message as well as in receiving general apathy from the moviegoers the world over.
Before getting into the issues raised in Dark City I’d like to talk about its most misunderstood facet, the acting. I have heard the acting described as everything from monotonous to plainly bad. For me the acting was tremendous throughout in how understated it was while at the same time working within the theme. These people are reprogrammed on a regular basis, Rufus Sewell has had a lapse that has left him with no memories, Jennifer Connelly just received her new memories when the movie begins while Kiefer Sutherland is completely devoid of all memories outside of being a doctor. It’s important to keep that in mind, because the above explains why Connelly, Sewell and Sutherland play their roles with a sense of confusion and emptiness. Sewell doesn’t know how to feel love or anger, he only knows confusion and what his life is missing, he has to learn everything else as he goes along. Connelly has all the memories, but she doesn’t have the emotions to go along with them, because people are more than just a set of memories. Sutherland is a blank slate, the emptiest of them all because he knows what is going on and suffers through it every moment, he can’t imbue his character with great depth or emotion because there isn’t any depth to imbue. By staying within the realm of emptiness and not conveying emotion expect for in random startled blurts, the actors stay true to the theme and deliver splendid performances across the board.
The visual style of Dark City is appealing to the eye but it also ties into the theme. The city, and the film, certainly have a noirish feel to them and Dark City is as much of a noir as it is a sci-fi flick. The city and the film feel very transient, the look isn’t from one specific point in time, it is a mishmash of ideas and looks from throughout the memories of the people. The Strangers don’t understand humans and they don’t understand our aesthetics either, thus the city looks like a jumbled mess of the 1940’s through the 1990’s. The city conveys the idea of discovering who we are and what makes us who we are, because every night, or the equivalent of such, the city is changed by the Strangers in an attempt to discover the answers to those questions. It’s very appearance mocks the Strangers experiments, trying to tell them that no matter what they do they won’t discover the answers they seek because humanity is a myriad of thoughts and ideas, not just one discernible ultra idea.
Like most inquisitive science fiction Dark City is a film where the story and the themes work hand in hand with one another. The story is a mystery, unraveling bit by bit throughout the movie. The nature of man is the same way, what makes us tick isn’t known, it’s a puzzle that is figured out piece by piece over time, but new pieces are always being added so that we never complete the puzzle. The Strangers aren’t necessarily villains, because unlike most aliens they don’t hate us, they merely want to discover the individuality that is so great about us and how that can help them survive their impending extinction. Dark City is the type of film that could be ridden with cliches, but it avoids all cliches, although it does create a scenario whereby it’s immediate successor The Matrix is full of cliches, and remains an innovative film throughout. Dark City never stops asking the important questions, even in its happy ending there is a sense of doom, because if Murdoch is now powerful enough to shape the city to his liking then are we truly humanity or will we continue being the puppets of someone else?
Dark City is a film I had heard great word of mouth about for years, it lived up to all that hype and more. There are some minor continuity issues and some standard science fiction errors, but the very nature of the story in Dark City creates ways for them to be explained away. Dark City holds up to any scrutiny and remains one of the best films of the 1990’s and one of the best science fiction films that no one has ever heard of. I would suggest that if you are inclined to see Dark City that you go with the director’s cut and that you choose the DVD option over streaming it or watching it on TV. Roger Ebert contributes a commentary track, to both the theatrical and director’s cut, that is informative, funny and a joy to listen to, and is something any fan of Dark City or film in general should listen to.