The nineties were a veritable treasure trove of horror-tinged, philosophical sci-fi dystopias that simply couldn't say no to the allure of high octane action-thrillers. It's like Kierkegaard joined the X-games, and John Woo is the directing the whole thing. It's like a hefty chunk of existential angst crept into the creative marrow of an entire decade. Something of an underground hit, Dark City remains of the more stalwart examples of imaginative sci-fi film-making during the Clinton years. Having finished the more Gothic intoned The Crow, director Alex Proyas decided that his next project would give tribute to noir films, as well as some of the heady concepts found in the books of Phillip K. Dick (Would you call them Dick-y concepts? Dickensian is out of the question, right? Kaydick ? ). That next project would be Dark City, a brooding but inspired science fiction and noir film mash-up that prods questions about the nature of memory and identity, and how the two correlate.
Inside a hotel room in a Fritz Lang inspired cityscape, a man (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a hotel room. He finds himself sitting in a bath tub with no recollection of his past life. A corpse of a butchered woman lies next to him, and the woman has bizarre spiral incisions on her skin. A well timed phone call by a doctor Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) informs him that he is in danger, and must flee the scene. As he does this, a group of leather-clad Pinhead rejects enter the hotel searching for him. These outré G-men seem hell-bent on finding him at any cost. And there is something undeniably eerie about their shaved heads and weird cadences, kind of like if Jean Luc Picard took Mescaline. Thus a game of cat and mouse begins where our hero, a man we would later learn is called Murdoch, begins running fleeing through the city trying to give his pursuers the slip. Along the way, he begins noticing certain irregularities about it – first, there is a worrying lack of sunshine anywhere in the city. People don't sleep, but instead get frozen in time and have their heads drilled in by the Pinhead guys. And he himself begins exhibiting telekinetic powers. The leather gang known as the Strangers, influence all things in the City by way of manipulating the citizen's memories by implanting new ones into their minds every night. This serves as a terrifying massive-scale experiment with the intention of finding what exactly the human soul is.
Besides Murdoch, another group of people is trying to decipher certain irregularities about the world they inhabit as well. Police inspector Bumstead (William Hurt) is also interested in apprehending Murdoch, as he believes he committed a string of murders around town. He starts noticing his own inability to remember his past, and slowly gets dragged into a much larger story as well. Murdoch's ex- wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) is searching for Murdoch as well, as she becomes embroidered in the mystery alongside Bumstead. With all of the pieces in play, the movie is free to create a dramatic tapestry woven from the perspectives of the principal characters. Their own stories add layers to the central narrative, and the mystery of the City. And while individually, these vignettes might seem disconnected, even random, they actually add up in the end, and actually make this chaotic screenplay feel approachable. From the very first scene, the movie establishes that it has a lot to say, and a certain dramatic messiness is present. It never truly goes away, as characters get introduced incredibly rapidly, only to get shafted a scene or two later.. In essence, the movie is a think- piece about how the concept of self gets thrown around and molded by various agents. When stripped to its bare essentials, what is the sole indivisible trait a person can have? That, and how to make mind-powered kung-fu not look hokey. The answers to these questions might not always be the most satisfying, but they are asked with style and an unbroken focus. But if Dark City excels at one thing, it is its visual identity. Recalling German Expressionism and pulp noir, every detail invests you in this mondo-bizarre world. Thick shadows envelop rooms, moody lighting and a black-amber-green color scheme instill a sixties-retro meets the end of the world vibe. Sharply dressed men and women litter the scenes, their faces creasing with existential dread. The actors moving through the sets make them look like parts of an overly edgy Edward Hopper painting. Out of the actors, leading man Rufus Sewell is played as an observer, a man of questions before action. Given the themes the movie deals with, he is an apt protagonist for this story. His blank slate-like state allows him to re-do the wrongs from his previous lives. The emotional crux of the movie consists of him reuniting with his estranged wife. This often too think-y movie can feel dispassionate, so a little emotional investment goes a long way. Add in a refreshingly optimistic ending, and this Dark City might not be as bleak as one would thing. William Hurt is an amazing actor, and besides delivering a few razor-sharp sidelong glances, he doesn't get a lot to work with in this movie. A lot of time is spent with his character, but it ends up feeling like exposition, rather than character progression. Jennifer Connelly is jaw- droppingly gorgeous, a femme fatale whose ice-cold heart slowly begins to thaw as the prospect of redeeming herself becomes possible. Not one of her strongest roles, but still a standout in a film chock-full of nervous weirdos.
Director Alex Proyas always seems on the verge of greatness. Yet, there is always some niggling detail that prevents his work from attaining classic status. But among his movies Dark City stands as his finest work to date, and is one of the more satisfying products of this era of film-making.