Screenplay : Alex Proyas and Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Rufus Sewell (John Murdoch), Kiefer Sutherland (Dr. Daniel Schreber), Jennifer Connelly (Emma Murdoch), William Hurt (Inspector Frank Bumstead), Richard O'Brien (Mr. Hand), Ian Richardson (Mr. Book), Colin Friels (Walenski), Frank Gallacher (Stromboli), Mitchell Butel (Husselbeck)
As human beings, memories are our most cherished possession. So what would happen if you couldn't trust them as your own? Isn't it your memories that show you are real, that give proof of your prior existence? Is your memory not your identity? What would happen if the past you had stored in your mind was not really yours? What if it belonged to someone else, or possibly, to no one at all?
This is the basic question underlying Alex Proyas' ambitious new thriller, "Dark City." Part film noir, part science fiction, part fantasy, and part psychotic dreamscape, "Dark City" is a visual marvel of a cinematic experience. If not always coherent or logical, it takes on the striking essence of a visceral nightmare, where images flood and pour into one another, all drenched in inky darkness.
The film takes place in a city where there is no daylight, and no one is who he thinks he is. It is perfect terrain for Proyas, the Australian-born music video director who wowed movie audiences in 1994 with his comic book masterpiece "The Crow." Proyas has a knack for transforming the most fantastic vistas of the imagination into cinematic reality, which is exactly what he does here. More than anything, "Dark City" resembles Japanese anime films like "Akira" (1988), both in style and substance. The only difference is that instead of ink and paper, Proyas uses actors, expansive sets, and great douses of digital imagery to bring his visions to life; but the movie still maintains the wildly kinetic feel of something animated.
The hero of "Dark City" is a simple man named John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), who wakes up in a hotel room with a dead woman on the floor and confused memories in his head. He doesn't remember who he is, but he has flashes of memory, some of which seem to suggest that he is a serial killer. He stumbles out of the hotel and into the city, desperate to find out who he is and what he has done.
Is Emma (Jennifer Connelly), a beautiful nightclub singer, really his estranged wife? Did he really kill the woman in his hotel room, along with five others? If he didn't, then why does he remember dropping the knife, and why is his coat pocket filled with newspaper clippings about the serial killer? While he is trying to find answers to these questions, a dogged police inspector (William Hurt) is hot on his trail ... as are others.
These others are known as the Strangers, and they hold all the answers to his questions. Although they appear as creepy, pale-faced bald men in black trenchcoats, they are actually a dying alien race that has come to earth in desperation. They abducted a large segment of the human population from earth and, unbeknownst to these people, constructed the titular city as a giant laboratory which they use to conduct experiments. And what do they hope to discover in their research? Why, nothing less than the human soul. They want to know what it is about us that makes us human, so they can take it in order to preserve themselves from extinction.
Every night at midnight, everyone in the city falls asleep as the Strangers literally stop time so they can alter the reality in which the people live. Buildings collapse into the ground while new ones rise up, twisting and forming like giant flowers. Barber shops morph into hotels, bridges disappear, tenement buildings turn into mansions, and so on. But no one ever notices because when they wake up, they think this is how it has always been.
But that's not all the Strangers do. They have selected one human, a psychologist named Dr. Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), to help them. He concocts strange chemical formulas, which are essentially memories. He can mix and match them, and while time is stopped, he goes about to various people, injecting new memories into their heads. So a man who is a hotel manager when time stops, wakes up as a newspaper salesman and never knows he was anything other than that. Or, in Murdoch's case, he wakes up with the fragmented memories of a serial killer. But, with Murdoch, something went wrong, and the Strangers are desperate to find him because he may have taken on some of their power.
If this all sounds confusing, it is at first. However, the screenplay by Proyas, Lem Dobbs, and David S. Goyer actually develops this crazy storyline into an almost plausible thriller that is high on excitement, but low on human drama. The story is an amalgam of many others, merging the hard-boiled police dramas of the 40's with Philip K. Dick-style science fiction. The notion of having false memories implanted in one's mind is nothing new; that's a science fiction device that has been used in countless stories and films, ranging from "Blade Runner" (1982) to "Total Recall" (1990).
However, the story falls secondary to the visual world in which it takes place. Although the performances by all the lead actors are good, it is almost pointless to talk about them because their characters are lost in the shadows of their world. "Dark City" has grand production design and the feel of real vision, even if that vision is assembled from other parts. In the design of "Dark City," one can see traces of literally hundreds of films before it: from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (1926) to Tim Burton's "Batman" (1989) to the visionary French film, "The City of Lost Children" (1992).
Nevertheless, the world presented in "Dark City" is completely absorbing, one that takes you in and never lets you go. It is an almost seamless combination of sets, miniatures, and digital technology, all of which bring to life a world that usually resides only in the imagination. If it feels like an extension of the netherworld where "The Crow" took place, that's for good reason. Proyas recruited a great deal of the technical team that brought that film to life, including cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and editor Dov Hoenig. Working together again, Proyas and his team breathe life into a mystical world of strange aliens, marvelous machinery, and false dreams, which is the ultimate goal of any visionary filmmaker.
©1998 James Kendrick