Monday, September 7, 2015

The Once Over Twice: Dark City

(1998) Directed by Alex Proyas; Written by Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs and David Goyer; Starring: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Richard O’Brien and Ian Richardson; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“The original idea came from me wanting to, I guess, combine a hard-boiled detective with the science fiction genre, and out of my desire to create a film involving these two very opposed styles of film.” – Alex Proyas

“The Strangers represent, I suppose, what we could become if we lost our souls.” – David Goyer

Due to Dark City’s central conceit, it’s difficult to discuss the film without revealing some key plot points. If you haven’t seen the movie and want to remain spoiler free, you might want to revisit this review at a later date. Otherwise, let’s jump in…

Director/co-writer Alex Proyas’ ambitious follow-up to The Crow, covers similar gothic territory, but covers a larger scope: the fate of an entire population. This sci-fi noir takes place in a metropolis trapped in perennial night. Proyas and production designer Patrick Tatopoulos (with George Liddle) borrowed from several decades for the film’s signature look, although the 1930s-1940s aesthetic prevails. Shot in Australia over a period of 80 days on 55 sets, Dark City immerses us in a world that appears at once alien and familiar,* recalling an old-time Northeastern American city from our collective memories.

* One of the film’s touches is its depiction of an automat, modeled after the ubiquitous Horn & Hardart eating establishments, which were a ubiquitous part of New York and Philadelphia’s early 20th century urban landscape.  

The film begins with a mystery, as John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a bathtub, confused about who he is, and what he‘s doing in a strange hotel room. He attempts to piece together his hazy memories by looking for clues in the city, and discovers he’s wanted for the killing of several prostitutes. Although he has no recollection of the murders, he vaguely recalls being estranged from his wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly), who recently had an affair with another man, and a childhood spent in Shell Beach. Sewell was chosen by Proyas because the director felt Murdoch’s quest for identity would be more believable if the audience wasn’t accustomed to the actor. Sewell is appealing as our guide to this inhospitable city, conveying the right blend of naivetĂ© and irritation about his predicament. We share his surprise as he uncovers his latent abilities to “tune,” or re-arrange matter at will. We also share his frustration, as he tries to uncover the truth behind the city, and his quest for the elusive Shell Beach.

The black-clad Strangers are the hive-minded puppet masters who orchestrate the city’s activities. Their bodies are mere vessels for the alien creatures that reside within. They reside in a vast underground complex, deep below the city, where they master time and matter through psychic-controlled machinery. They continually shuffle the city, people and memories in new combinations, in an effort to uncover the mysteries of the human soul. Richard O’Brien stands out as the Stranger, Mr. Hand, who shares Murdoch’s memories and tracks his movements. His sociopathic demeanor belies his keen fascination with the human species and the value of individuality. Ian Richardson and Bruce Spence are also memorable as Strangers Mr. Book and Mr. Wall. 

Kiefer Sutherland plays against type as the sniveling psychiatrist Dr. Schreber, who assists the Strangers with their insidious human experiments. He creates and implants new memories in the city’s residents, observing the individual differences and the resulting interactions when roles are reversed. Schreber fashions custom mixtures of memories and emotions, like mixing pigments on a canvas to create new colors, injecting the resultant biochemical cocktail into the unwilling recipients’ frontal lobes.* His betrayal of humanity stems more from self-preservation than malice, as he lives in constant fear of retaliation by the alien overlords. But we sense he’s just biding his time until he can find a way to turn against them. Schreber spends his spare time in a swimming pool, a passive-aggressive statement against his aquaphobic captors.

* Current research suggests long-term memories are primarilystored in the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, although pre-fabricated memories in a syringe might be stretching things a wee bit.

The spiral shape recurs throughout the film, signifying an inexorable pathway, like a rat following Dr. Schreber’s maze. In one shot, the city itself is revealed to be a spiral shape, reinforcing the metaphor. Former policeman Walenski (Colin Friels) draws the spirals with an obsessive-compulsive fervor. His madness masks the fact that he’s discovered the truth about the city and its inhabitants, with everyone following a pre-determined path. Inevitability might also describe the relationship between Murdoch and Emma. She can’t accept her husband’s assessment that their marriage (and by extension, her betrayal), was nothing but a fabrication, suggesting their bond transcends any pre-programmed roles.  

Visually, Dark City is a masterpiece, but as a movie about celebrating humanity it leaves me feeling somewhat cold and distanced from the characters. But it’s a wonderful exercise in style as substance (as opposed to style over substance), and the images have remained embossed in my brain. Detailed sets, miniature models and CGI are blended judiciously to create a city that’s constantly being constructed and de-constructed. The only effects that fall short are the computer-rendered creatures that reside within the Strangers, which are only briefly seen.  

Dark City invites frequent comparisons to such dystopian films as Blade Runner and Metropolis (I would also throw in Gotham City from Tim Burton’s Batman), with elements such as invented memories and towering skylines. Screenwriter Lem Dobbs, however, cited the works of George Orwell as one of his primary influences. Whatever the inspirations, conscious or subconscious, the end result is far from derivative. Most similarities are superficial, relying partially on our collective memories of earlier films to make an association. Dark City demands our attention, and is open to multiple interpretations. The fact that it didn’t thrive at the box office suggests 1998 audiences wanted less challenging fare. Oddly enough, many of the same existential themes of reality and identity were explored, perhaps in a flashier package, in the following year’s hit, The Matrix. Regardless of its initial reception, Dark City has earned a loyal following, and is worthy of reassessment. Alex Proyas’ best effort to date proves his mettle as a true visionary, despite some of the career misfires that followed. It would be nice to see him eventually return to such territory.

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