Cult films don't come much more groundbreaking than "Dark City" -- it was bending reality before the Matrix ever did.
At first glance, Alex Proyas' movie seems like a basic sci-fi little-man-against-evil-aliens flick. But it isn't. Instead, it's a dark grimy nightmare where nothing is what it seems, and everything we think is real is just an elaborate illusion. This is one of the rare films that is creepy from start to finish.
The Strangers are pasty-faced, bald, leather-coat-wearing aliens (think Darth Vader, post-mask), whose survival depends on somehow imitating human souls and dreams. So they created the Dark City, to observe and manipulate the unwitting humans.
Our hero John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up naked in a tub, with no memory of who he is, and the police hunting him for brutal murders that he is sure he didn't commit. And worse, hes being pursued by the Strangers, without even knowing who they are or why they're after him.
And then he starts seeing past the Strangers' illusions. Buildings are reshaped, people's memories change, and the sun never appears. As John searches for hints to his past, he finds that the places he knew never existed -- and it's connected to the Strangers. Now John and a suspicious cop will unravel the truth of the City -- and of why the Strangers want John.
It's not surprising that "The Matrix" and "Dark City" are often compared. They deal with an illusionary "real" world, malevolent manipulation, and one man who might be able to stop the bad guys. But "Dark City" is very much unique -- it's dark, angular, and haunted, like if Fritz Lang made a sci-fi noir.
The Dark City is a pretty creepy place, like a... well, like a city at night, with some surreal skyscrapers, big cogs and giant clocks. Proyas gives all these scenes a creepy feeling, which is only increased by the fact that there are so few people in the streets and houses. Even everyday things like eating soup and going to work become unreal.
But it's also paired with a very suspenseful script, which is equal parts surrealism and gnostic philosophy. All the dialogue is well written ("You know something, I don't think the sun even... exists... in this place"), and very spare. But Proyas makes all the dialogue weirdly disconnected, as if the characters are never really communicating fully. It adds to the dreamlike feeling.
Sewell is well-suited to the role of John Murdoch, moving seamlessly from confusion to skepticism to a pretty wild action scene where he clashes with all the Strangers. Connelly has a good if underused role as his nightclub-singer wife. Kiefer Sutherland is a bit annoying, but he does a good Peter Lorre impersonation with all those nervous gasps.
Like Kafka on acid, "Dark City" is a unique and compelling sci-fi movie, with outstanding direction and an amazing plot. Definitely a must-see.