Dark City (1998)

Note: This is a review of The Director’s Cut of Dark City.

Dark City is the greatest work of science fiction captured on film since Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Its astounding visual style, painstaking attention to detail and metaphysical contemplation provide for one of those rare pictures that transcends the medium and demonstrates the power of the science fiction genre. Director Alex Proyas’ vision of the future is as bleak and beautiful a vision as any of the great works of science fiction and a film that every fan of cinema and science fiction should seek out.

John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a hotel bathroom with no memory, receives a cautionary phone call from a Dr. Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) and finds a dead hooker beside his bed. As he flees both Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) and mysterious pale men in black he tries to piece together his identity. Is he a ruthless serial killer on the run or the hurt husband of a woman named Emma Murdoch (Jennifer Connelly) that just was at the wrong place at the wrong time?

The protagonist’s awakening into a world he knows nothing about could have provided for yet another cliché use of amnesia, but instead John Murdoch’s quest for identity becomes a searching for what makes us human. Instead of using amnesia as veil which is held over both the protagonist’s and audience’s eyes it becomes a way of exploring base elements of the human experience such as memory, emotion and personality.

And like the intricacies of the human experience, there’s a great emphasis on crafting a deep and involving film. On the surface there is a brilliant construction to the various clues and cues left throughout the film that slowly begin to fall into place. There’s nary a wasted shot or unnecessary prop in the entirety of the film. Everything exists in the film for a specific purpose. Even the tiniest elements that the film only briefly shows end up being major clues as to what is going on.

And yes, sometimes these details are for nothing more than to create a certain shot. Yet the style of the picture itself does not exist independent of the story or the characters. The chiaroscuro lighting is not eye candy but use to create this idea of an absence or void, that something is always missing, that there is something wrong with this city. And the symbol of this spiral throughout the film conveys both this idea of everything converging and that there’s some kind of uncanny design behind all this

Setting aside the ideas and thoughts developed through the visual style for a moment one must praise the astounding technical and visual skill of director Alex Proyas and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski. They simultaneously create a look that is simple in its contrast of darkness and light and rich in the subtle undertones of color. Greens, yellows and blues softly seep their way into the images, and while at times it is obvious there’s a skillful restraint on display.

It’s near impossible to watch Dark City without comparing it to The Matrix. There are the obvious similarities thematically but even beyond that both villains are these slightly off men in fine suits, both contain “rebirth” scenes and both have a similar color pallet. And the two films even use some of the same sets. Yet when comparing the two it’s no competition. There’s more subtle craft and rich texture to one viewing of Dark City than could ever be found in multiple viewings of The Matrix. And while The Matrix quickly devolves into a series of sleek, over the top action scenes and took two more films to round off the tale, Dark City is able to provide a satisfying and complete tale in one installment because it’s not preoccupied with the fantasies of 13 year old boys and the voracious appetite of corporate greed.

Dark City is of a singular focus and of the highest standard of filmmaking. It is a thoughtful picture that demonstrates the power of cinema at the highest level. Like Blade Runner it is a surreal contemplation on metaphysical questions and a brilliant exercise in cinematic excellence. And stating that the film is one of the greatest science fiction films of all time is not enough; Dark City is one of the greatest films of all time.

© 2009 James Blake Ewing

Dark City (Director’s Cut) [Blu-ray]