1998, R, 100 min. Directed by Alex Proyas. Starring Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Richard O'Brien, Ian Richardson.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 27, 1998
You really have to feel for Alex Proyas. This guy wears bad luck like the grimy trenchcoats of his protagonists, only his zipper's stuck and he can't seem to shake the damn thing off. It's been four years since his stunning debut with The Crow, and by all accounts Proyas has spent much of the intervening time trying to come to grips with the tragic on-set death of that film's star, Brandon Lee. Proyas, who cut his teeth in the advertising and video world of MTV, has a remarkable visual aesthetic; it's no great leap to say he's right up there with Jacques Tourneur or Ridley Scott in terms of his eye for sordid detail (his only real contemporary rival is City of Lost Children's Jean-Pierre Jeunet). And Dark City, like its predecessor, is a stunningly visual smorgasbord of tenebrous eye-candy, all creeping shadows and urban malaise. Proyas' ability to make a twilight cityscape look menacing is like no one else's. But apart from the sensory input he throws at you, Dark City is a curiously unengaging experience. It's like the CD-ROM games Myst or Riven blown up to huge cinematic proportions while the critical ideas driving the play are left behind. For all its dark splendor, nothing much happens to make you squirm or gasp or weep, as in The Crow. It flatlines before it ever begins. The story seems ripped from one of Kafka's lesser nightmares: Everyman John Murdoch (Sewell) wakes up in a bathtub with blood seeping from his forehead. Suffering from amnesia, he doesn't know who or where he is, or what's going on (in this manner he functions as the viewer's surrogate throughout the film), but he soon runs into the mysterious Dr. Schreber (Sutherland), a paranoid, possibly dangerous physician newly graduated from the Peter Lorre School of Tics and Twitches. Schreber informs him that the city's inhabitants are the victims of some ongoing cosmic experiment being conducted by a race of black-clad, fedora-topped aliens called “The Strangers,” who hope to unlock the secrets of humanity by mixing and matching people's memories. The city, it seems, is entirely a construct of these film noir bad guys, who have the ability to alter reality at will (a power Murdoch himself has picked up as well). Proyas also throws in the only American actress to ever adequately survive a Dario Argento film – Jennifer Connelly – as Murdoch's estranged wife, and William Hurt (suitably vague) as a Forties-style gumshoe out to solve a series of citywide serial killings. Actually, the whole film has a post-WWII feel to it, thanks in part to George Liddle's spectacular production design and Dariusz Wolski's gorgeous cinematography, but the actual time period is anyone's guess. So is much of the plot, though Proyas, who also penned the script, does his best to make things adhere to some internal logic I never quite figured out. Dark City looks like a million bucks (or rather, a million bucks gone to compost), but at its dark heart it's a tedious, bewildering affair, lovely to look at but with all the substance of a dissipating dream.