Dark City isn’t precisely a time travel movie. However, since its mercurial cityscape cobbles together such a wide range of eras--and since its characters spend so much time living in their own memories--I’ll say it’s close enough.
What Dark City is, for sure... is a movie you’re just impressed anybody got away with making. It’s weird, it’s smart, it’s distinct and, more so than even Blade Runner, it’s the very definition of a cult movie. I saw this with my Dad in a mostly-empty theater on an inauspicious Saturday night in ’98 and we must’ve accounted for a huge percentage of the handful of viewers who actually saw it then. It only pulled in about $14 million domestically, and that’s a damn shameful fate for such a damn good movie.
The disappointing returns of this flick are doubly frustrating because Alex Proyas hasn’t really gotten to make something like this in these 13 years since its release. Thus, I’m glad to use this opportunity to put it in front of some more eyes and challenge anybody to be intrigued by this virtuoso teaser...
Quite impressive how that draws you in without telling you much-to-anything about the plot, no?
As for the plot, Rufus Sewell plays an amnesiac named John Murdock (or is that even his name?) who wakes up in the middle of a crime scene to find himself being pursued by the police. They say he’s a serial killer responsible for the grisly murders of six prostitutes; he can't remember anything about any of that and they're all chasing after their own mysteries. Is Murdock a psychopath who's blacked out? Does he have multiple personalities? Or could he be the victim of sinister manipulators?The night never ends in this place Murdock's found himself in. It's ruled by a cabal of enigmatic Strangers who can "tune" the environment to their will and assign identities to its unsuspecting citizens. At periodic intervals, everybody in the city drops into a deep slumber and these Strangers ascend to imprint them with new, falsified memories. A guy may go to sleep as a working stiff and wake up as ritzy millionaire by the design of this arcane experiment.
Things start falling apart once Murdock starts showing the power to tune just like the Strangers do...
I guess this might’ve got a little bump in the popular consciousness recently when Christopher Nolan cited it along with the Thirteenth Floor and the Matrix as being of the type of late 90s “reality questioning” movies he wanted to emulate with Inception. Dark City does, indeed, share a surprising number of similarities with a certain trilogy--malevolent overlords enslaving on helpless masses with a false reality, inhuman enemies taking on human qualities to horrific effect, an explosive finale with aerial duels and reality warping powers--but the similarities are only coincidental. Matrix actually even shot on the same sets that were left over at the Australian stages this was made in.And those stages are absolutely superb. Just check out the 50 foot tall amphitheater of the Strangers’ subterranean lair in this clip from the director’s cut (which I unfortunately have yet to see…)
Were I to break down the movie-to-movie differences, I'd say that Dark City explores more of what a normal person would go through after discovering his whole life was a lie. Matrix really hopped over that to get to the cool wire-fu and self-actualizing enlightenment, but this lingers more on the implications and questions. If you're the sum of your experiences, what are you when your memories are fabricated? How often do you go through the motions in your life such that you're basically playing a role? Can emotions as powerful as love be faked by such schemes? This flick gives you plenty to ponder upon.
As was the case with Twelve Monkeys, I want to stress how there is, indeed, a heart to mediate between the hand and the brain here (at they say in Metropolis.) That is, for all the heady ideas and impressive set pieces, there's still room for some fine performances that range from the moving understatement of Jennifer Connelly as Murdock’s lost wife to a long-before- 24 Kiefer Sutherland as the fervent, but ever uneasy, Dr. Schreber. Rocky Horror Picture alum, Richard O’Brien, truly steals the show, however, as the unnaturally-affected Stranger, Mr. Hand. I even waxed rhapsodic about that performance in my Top Five Evilest Aliens List.Seriously, check Dark City out. More so than other movie I've profiled here, it really needs your time.
Check out some previous "Weirdies" below...