Getting lost in a really good science fiction story may be on my top 10 list of the best ways to spend my time. I recently had the pleasure to see one of the most surprisingly excellent science fiction films that I have ever seen. That move is Alex Proyas’ 1998 film Dark City. Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post had this to say about the movie, “If you don’t fall in love with it, you’ve probably never fallen in love with a movie, and never will.” I think that’s the best way to summarize how great this movie actually is, and it’s going to be hard to pick out all of the great things while keeping this review a reasonable length.
When John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a bath tub with no memory of who he is or what he’s doing there, he becomes worried. When he soon sees that there is a prostitute who’s been brutally murdered in the same hotel room as he is, he becomes terrified. As he wanders the city he finds himself in, which is suffering from a case of perpetual darkness, Murdoch soon learns that he is being chased by a mysterious group of pale men with psychokinetic powers. As the mystery thickens, Murdoch learns he also has a less than faithful wife (Jennifer Connelly) and a psychologist (Kiefer Sutherland) who seems to want to help him, but who is also involved with the group of pale men called the Strangers. Meanwhile, Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt) is in charge of a team that is investigating the mystery surrounding the murdered prostitute, but soon finds himself wrapped up in Murdoch’s own mystery that will completely change the lives of every citizen in the city.
A lot of stuff happens in this movie, and it isn’t easy getting in the important plot information to give a skeletal version of the story without ruining the plethora of surprises that this movie has up its sleeve. That being said, if you’re interested in seeing this movie at all, make sure you pick up or find a copy of the director’s cut, because the studio that was producing this movie demanded Proyas put a voice over in the beginning that was meant to give some background information, but ended up spoiling a lot of the mystery behind what is actually going on. That was, in my opinion, the best part of this movie. In the very beginning when Sewell’s character wakes up, we know just as much as he does which is absolutely nothing. As the film rolls on, I found myself trying harder and harder to figure out what was going on before any of it was revealed.
With all of that talk of mystery, I have to point out just how well written this movie is. As someone who studies screenwriting with big hopes of doing just that for a living, I found myself thinking that this movie should be shown and studied in classes that have to do with writing. In terms of story, this is one of the best written movies I have ever seen. Alex Proyas along with Lem Dobbs (The Limey, Haywire) and David S. Goyer (Blade II, The Dark Knight) have crafted an incredible screenplay filled with twists, suspense, and philosophy. Almost every good science fiction story has some sort of lesson or warning, and the one in Dark City asks a very good question: What makes us human? Is it our intelligence, moral code, or something else?
I can’t say a whole hell of a lot about the acting. It’s serviceable, but nothing special save for Richard O’Brien (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) as Mr. Hand. Fun fact about this movie, the Strangers are actually based off his character of Riff Raff in Rocky Horror. Anyway, while the acting is fine, I should talk more about the set design. Anyone who has seen Proyas’ earlier film The Crow knows how good he is when it comes to creating environments covered in darkness. Dark City just drives that point home. The city is a dark version of cities from many different eras of time. We never know what time period it is since the scenery is such an eclectic mix of old and new. Buildings seem like they could fall apart at any second and the lights and darks set a whole new bar for the subgenre of tech-noir.
It’s nice in these reviews to end by saying that I have a new movie to add to my list of favorites. Dark City is a mesmerizing and heady trip into the depths of science fiction and philosophy. There are a lot of stylistic similarities to Blade Runner, but (in a most unpopular opinion) I would much rather spend my time watching Dark City. If you haven’t had the opportunity to see what Roger Ebert called “the best movie of 1998,” then get working on finding a copy. It’s pretty mind blowing stuff.