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City of darkness
on February 22, 2007
Cult films don't come much more groundbreaking than "Dark City" -- it was bending reality before the Matrix ever did, and with less obvious messages.
At first glance, Alex Proyas' spellbinding movie seems like a pretty basic story -- a seemingly ordinary man is pitted against the mysterious aliens who control his world. But it is far more than that. It's a dark grimy nightmare where nothing is what it seems, and everything we think is real is just an elaborate illusion, suffused with murky noir atmosphere and a mesmerizingly creepy band of villains. This is one of the rare films that is sublime 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.
John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up naked in a tub, with no memory of who he is, and a brutally murdered woman in the hotel room outside. Police inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) and the cops are hunting him for a series of murders, but John is sure he didn't murder anyone. He also is the only who seems to notice that the Dark City is perpetually night. And he's the only one who doesn't spontaneously fall into a coma at midnight, which is when the the Strangers appear.
Who are the Strangers? Pasty, bald aliens inhabiting dead bodies who appear every night to rearrange the world. Buildings are reshaped, people's memories change, and some people's whole lives are altered. And before long, John discovers that the strangers are after him because he can "tune" reality as they do.
As John struggles to figure out what is real and what is manufactured by the Strangers, he encounters the eccentric scientist Dr. Shreber (Kiefer Sutherland), who creates the fake memories that the Strangers inject into people's brains. As Shreber tries to help him achieve his destiny, the Strangers send Mr. Hand (Richard O'Brien) -- who has the false memories intended for John -- to find what makes him different from all other humans.
"Dark City" is often considered the predecessor of "The Matrix" -- they both deal with dark-suited people who manipulate the real world, the fluidity of memory and reality, and a single messianic figure who may be the key to stopping them with his reality-warping powers. But "Dark City" is less of a blockbuster, and more of an eerie cult movie that begs to be watched and rewatched, dissected and reexamined.
And Alex Proyas gives this movie a fascinating vibe -- 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. The streets are mostly empty and the citizens seem to walk through life in a half-awake fog, and even everyday actions like eating soup or doing paperwork achieve a strangely unreal quality. When the occasional person like Bumstead -- able to pierce the veil of lies and false memories -- comes along, it seems to cut through the strange eerieness.
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, as if the characters have mostly pre-programmed responses to things. 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 mesmerizingly good as John Murdoch, moving seamlessly from confusion to skepticism to a pretty wild action scene where he clashes with all the Strangers on a scaffold. He forms a trinity of sorts with Hurt's Bumstead, a capable and intelligent cop who begins to realize that his entire world doesn't make sense, and Sutherland's Peter Lorre-like Shreber as a scientist whose nervous gasps and scarring hint at how the Strangers have treated him. Underused but quite good is Jennifer Connelly, as the conflicted nightclub singer who MIGHT be Murdoch's unfaithful wife... but probably not.
And as the opposition, we have the incomparable Richard O'Brien as one of the Strangers who achieves a small amount of humanity, and seems to like it -- one beautiful little scene has him talking with Emma (whom he now has husbandly memories of) about the nature of memory and how his species has "no experiences to call your own."
Like Kafka on acid, like a dark comic book brought to life, "Dark City" is a fascinatingly dreamlike sci-fi movie, with the mesmerizing design and the complicated plot. What is real? The human soul.