The Good: Characters, acting, special effects
The Bad: Fails to satisfactorily answer the question "What's the point?"
The Basics: A must see! The bigger the screen the better! Only to be viewed in absolute darkness!
I used to think it was rare when Roger Ebert and I agree on a film (though that's changed quite a bit since I first wrote this review). I've never met the man, but reading his opinions or seeing his show, I've seldom found myself agreeing with his views on films. Dark City is an exception and I urge anyone considering seeing this film to read his review of Dark City.
Dark City is an existentialist's nightmare. It's a cinematographic masterpiece that does not rest simply on the strength of an amazing "look;" it is populated with numerous facets that defy film - especially genre - boundaries and limitations. While not strictly a special effects movie, this film uses pretty incredible special effects that still look great today to vividly create a distinct and nightmarish world. Dark City is the thinking person's The Matrix and it is ironic that so many people found Dark City AFTER The Matrix when Dark City was released the year before.
Dark City is the search for what makes a person human. Indeed, the experiment being conducted in Dark City is: if an individual is given memories of behaving a certain way, will they continue in that vein? The film explores what happens when John Murdock, suffering from amnesia, pieces together that he is a murderer through loads of circumstantial evidence. Not even possessing the memories of killing, he becomes frightened that he may not even know himself. In the process, he attempts to enlist the aid of his wife - whom he is unaware that he is estranged from - and a mad scientist caricature named Dr. Schreber. As he searches for his identity, Murdock is hunted by an empathetic and open-minded police detective and The Strangers.
The Strangers are essentially the scientists conducting the experiment and they are fascinating villains made more menacing by the fact that at least one of them is a child in form. Using the bodies of men who have died, the Strangers rule the city and warp reality around their own concepts of what makes humans tick in a quest to understand how memory and action interrelate. The veil for the quest to understand the human soul is brilliantly executed as writer-director Alex Proyas (who co-wrote this with Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer) creates an association between memory and action.
John Murdock is an empathetic character. Lacking any real memories, he finds himself traumatized to learn that he might be a killer. Murdock's chase is wonderfully paralleled by the unraveling of a case for Inspector Frank Bumstead. Bumstead intellectually unfolds the details that Murdock instinctively unravels and the parallel stories work brilliantly together to create a vivid and memorable exploration of the human condition.
Part of what makes the characters so genius is the acting behind them. Richard O'Brien and Ian Richardson are menacing as the villainous Strangers Mr. Hand and Mr. Book. Both lend a creepy stiff posture to the enemy that makes us believe in their power without questioning. Similarly, Jennifer Connelly's very human and feminine performance serves as a perfect foil to the frantic performance given by the lead, Rufus Sewell. Connelly's Emma is quiet and trusting and expresses love so perfectly with her eyes and body language. Connelly has the incredible ability to emote and she uses it perfectly in this film.
William Hurt does an excellent job as the fastidious and efficient, though emotionally reserved Inspector Bumstead. Hurt's poker face is on the entire movie and he creates a memorable gumshoe that we wish we could see more of. Similarly, Kiefer Sutherland gives one of the best performances of his career. Wounded by The Strangers, Dr. Schreber walks with a severe limp and Sutherland sells us on his damage. Sutherland creates a series of defects, including a speech impediment that makes Dr. Schreber more ambiguous than villainous. His range is definitely pushed with this performance.
But much of the movie rests on the performance of Rufus Sewell. Sewell is brilliant as John Murdock and from the moment he awakens naked in the bathtub, we are hooked on his performance. His eyes connote a power and director Alex Proyas uses that intensity to sell the audience on the abilities Murdock develops. All in all this is the performance that should have made Sewell huge, he is that impressive in the role.
The weakness of Dark City is in its definition. In the opening scene we are informed that The Strangers and their ability to Tune has brought them to a point where they are seeking survival for their collective memories. When, in the film, they seem to discover that it is unclear what they have learned that they didn't know before. In fact, more than unlocking the key to what it is to be human (which begs the unanswered question "What about being human, being individual, makes them think that humanity is the key to saving their race?"), it seems they succeed in making a human more like them.
On DVD, there are two commentary tracks, as well as featurettes on the making of the film. There is also a “Director’s Cut” (review forthcoming) which was not nearly as good. The Blu-Ray disc has BOTH versions of the film and represents the greatest value for viewers.
This is a fantastic drama and a perfect film that overcomes its lingering questions through the strength of acting, character, special effects and available plot. That is to say, other than the way the film is set up, everything that we see that happens makes sense!
For a similar mind-blowing film, please check out my review of Inception!
For other movie reviews, please check out my index page!
© 2010, 2007, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.