Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Dark City (1998) - Brooding Neo Noir Sci Fi

DVD Cover Dark City 1998
"Dark City" (1998).

"Dark City" (1998), directed by Alex Proyas ("The Crow") for New Line Cinema, is a solid science fiction film that tells a dark (in several ways) tale with a fair degree of understatement. Those kinds of films can be a lot of fun if done right, as in "Blade Runner." A low-key film like this that really makes you think is fun - because that's kind of the point of a science fiction film, isn't it? - and draws you into its alternate world. This film is a cult classic that is often used as a standard of excellence by fans. Like all movies with Jennifer Connelly, she is a delightful breath of fresh air in this one, too.

Murdoch Dark City 1998
Murdoch restrained in "Dark City."

John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) has amnesia, awakening in a hotel room with no idea of anything at all. The phone rings, and it is a Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), telling him to get out of the room fast or bad things will happen to him. He sees a mutilated dead woman in the room and gets the message, leaving at once as a rough group of men in black (the "Strangers") goes in looking for him.

Jennifer Connelly Dark City 1998
Jennifer Connelly sings  in "Dark City."- don' t know what, don't really care, but she looks great doing it, as in every Jennifer Connelly movie.

Figuring out his real name, he goes home through the perpetually dark city to his wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly), who acts as if nothing is wrong. Meanwhile, police inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) is investigating Murdoch for a string of killings of which Murdoch knows nothing.

Kiefer Sutherland Dark City 1998
The good doctor in "Dark City."

On the run from the Strangers, Murdoch discovers he has psychokinetic abilities, which come in handy in evading them. He is different than ordinary citizens, he finds, as everyone else loses consciousness at midnight each day while the Strangers change buildings and people.

Jennifer Connelly Dark City 1998
 "Dark City" is another Jennifer Connelly movie that delivers.

Murdoch begins remembering things as he moves about the city, realizing that he is from a beach community called Shell Beach. Unfortunately, he can't seem to get there, as nobody knows the way. The Strangers notice his presence and continue trying to capture him, even going to the extent of somehow giving one of their number, Mr. Hand (Richard O'Brien), Murdoch's own memories to try to out-think him.

Kiefer Suther as Dr. Schreber Dark City 1998
Kiefer Suther as Dr. Schreber in "Dark City."

Murdoch and Bumstead eventually meet, and Bumstead believes Murdoch's denials of being any kind of killer. They seek out Dr. Schreber, who gives them useful information. The Strangers are extraterrestrials who use human hosts as their bodies. They think as one unit, and are using humans as laboratory experiments to figure out their own condition, which is endangered. Murdoch, Schreber reveals, was one such experiment that went wrong. The doctor says that Murdoch was supposed to be given an identity as a serial killer, but the process didn't work.

Richard O'Brien Dark City 1998
The mysterious Mr. Hand and companions in "Dark City."

Murdoch, Bumstead and Schreber now try in earnest to find Shell Beach, which they learn does not exist except as a billboard as a wall. Poking a hole in it, Murdoch finds that beyond it is outer space, implying that they are on a spaceship.

Rufus Sewell Dark City 1998
Rufus Sewell as Murdoch, on the run in "Dark City."

The Strangers then intervene, and Bumstead and one of the Strangers fall out of the spaceship (air pressure maintained by an energy field) to their deaths. The Strangers, holding Emma hostage, bring Murdoch back to their underground lair and have Dr. Schreber do some memory work on him. Schreber, however, sabotages the experiment and gives Murdoch special memories that provide information about his psychic powers and the origins of the Strangers. He emerges with vastly increased power.

Rufus Sewell Melissa George Dark City 1998
Murdoch is onto something in "Dark City."

Mentally armed and ready, Murdoch then breaks free and battles the Strangers. He defeats their leader, Mr. Book (Ian Richardson) and alters the interior of the ship with his mental powers to create an actual Shell Beach, to which he departs after telling Mr. Hand that their attempt to use humans to figure out their own identity has failed.

Kiefer Sutherland Dark City 1998
Dr. Schreber performing an experiment in "Dark City."

The most striking thing about this film is its look - which isn't particularly original. It has a 1940s noirish feel to it called "neo-noir science fiction." Cross "Blade Runner" with "Brazil" and mix in a dose of Tim Burton's "Batman" and you get an approximation.

Shell Beach billboard Dark City 1998
Shell Beach Poster in "Dark City."

It is an interesting story, as far as it goes, and has parallels to the later "Aeon Flux" and "The Matrix." They all involve the notion that something is wrong with the world, and you just have to figure out what it is. The main difference is that "Dark City" devolves into your standard "man must figure out what is going wrong with the world" series of plot twists. Hurt is the a bright spot in this film, but not the only one. He acts rings around everyone in sight (as in 1983's brilliant "Gorky Park"). As a Jennifer Connelly movie, you look for her to give a nice change of pace at times, and she delivers. Kiefer Sutherland also does a fabulous job. The fx were good, with the shape-shifting buildings an unexpected treat. The ending is kind of murky, perhaps the set-up for a sequel that never happened. They are on a spaceship - to where? Why? Can the humans really coexist with the parasitic Stranger? There are many, many unanswered questions.

Shell Beach Dark City 1998
Shell Beach in "Dark City."
If you like science fiction and can spare the time, I would catch this one. It's fun, even if not quite as satisfying as I would have liked. Make sure you find the director's cut of "Dark City," which is vastly superior to other versions.


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