WFTB Score: 14/20
The Plot: John Murdoch wakes up in a dingy bathroom, oblivious of his surroundings. He quickly discovers he is suspected of the murder of several prostitutes, but does not know if he has committed them, whether he can trust the wife who says she loves him, or the identity of the tall, mysterious strangers who, like the police, seem intent on hunting him down.
It seems like a horrible combination: a crime drama set in the 50s with a grizzly, accordion-playing detective, smashed together with a science-fiction tale of bald, telekinetic aliens whose existence depends on finding out what makes the human soul tick. Dark City is precisely this: and it works.
When John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in his grotty bath, he is as clueless about his identity as the viewer, and we learn about him as he learns about himself. The journey is a satisfying one as we worry about his capacity for murder, then for his relationship, and then – in a bizarre but well-handled leap – we discover that he can manipulate or ‘tune’ the world around him, just like the Strangers, aliens who stalk the streets and appear to control the city.
The symbol of the spiral is a constant throughout the film, and the plot’s secrets are unravelled expertly until the central discovery is reached: the city is re-arranged every night and the lives of its citizens are fake, an experiment to make discoveries about human nature. John Murdoch is merely a lab rat, framed for murder to see how he and his wife, nightclub-singer Emma (Jennifer Connelly) react. Conducting the murder investigation, Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt) is equally oblivious to the fact that nothing is quite what it seems. Kiefer Sutherland, as Dr Schreber, is more clued up, however; he provides the link between aliens and humans, helping the Strangers to imprint new memories in return for being able to retain his own.
Proyas’ ability to keep a handle on both the 50s period setting and the Strangers’ landscape-transforming machines is impressive. The first sequence of mass ‘tuning’ is particularly good, new buildings twisting into place and a hard-pressed working-class family in a tenement suddenly becoming well-to-do employers in a mansion. The special effects throughout are good, if recognisably not as sophisticated as contemporary efforts.
‘Hang on,’ I hear you say, ‘this sounds just like The Matrix.’ Well, yes and no. Whilst it’s true that one film finds strong echoes in the other, there are equally a great number of differences (not least in the truth of the ‘Real’ world); and remember that despite being much the lesser-known title, Dark City was released a year before the Wachowski brothers’ movie.
In addition to the accomplished set design (appropriately, the movie feels like a film noir thriller) the acting is fine, Rufus Sewell in particular projecting the right mixture of bewilderment and potency. Hurt, too, is effective at portraying weary doggedness. Connelly is quietly sympathetic as Emma, although her singing voice is not the best, whilst all the Strangers are as creepy as they should be. Only Sutherland – prior to his 24 revival – feels fake, hamming it up as Dr Schreber, affecting a strange accent and speaking in breathy, halting phrases, a mannerism that quickly becomes annoying.
As is the case with most science fiction, the plot of Dark City is not watertight: in a slightly saggy middle act, John seems to forget he can tune when it would be most useful to him. We are also never completely sure of why or how humans can save the Strangers or, more to the point, the squid-like things that inhabit them. However, these are minor complaints: Dark City is compelling and visually striking stuff which you should make an effort to watch, if you can get hold of it.
NOTES: This review is based on the Director’s Cut of the film. Any comments to be made in respect of the original theatrical version will be added when I have time to watch it.