The film opens with John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) waking up in a bathtub in a run down hotel. He has no idea who he is, how he got there, or why there is a dead prostitute in the next room. He receives a mysterious phone call from the physically-misshapen psychiatrist Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) warning him of a group of 'Strangers' that are after him. Apparently, according to the perhaps unneeded opening voice-over, the Strangers are a dying alien race that are in search of a cure for their own mortality. Armed with a telepathic ability that can shape reality, called 'tuning', they roam the streets of the unnamed city carrying out their malevolent experiments on the unsuspecting populace.
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Perhaps one of my all time favorite cinema experiences lies in the fantastically created world which is “Dark City”. Brought to us by Alex Proyas the films brings us a starling vision of bleak alternate reality, whilst touching on the, rarely well-explored, themes of memory, philosophy and existentialism.
Whilst movie goers of late prefer films such as the Matrix and The Fifth Element, both undeniably appealing films, Dark City holds a subtlety akin to classics such as Blade Runner and another Proyas directed movie, The Crow.
This is essentially an old film noir amnesiac yarn, set in a hostile urban environment but its tale is shot through with a comic book vision of a big bad metropolis, which vastly increases the visual opportunities beyond the never ending night of the film.
Whilst it takes some time for viewers to gather their bearings, the film is not lacking in visual stimulation. At times I definitely felt as though the script had let me down, however despite these hesitations I was nevertheless drawn into the surreal retro-Forties dark metropolis, with credit to George Liddle and Patrick Tatopolous for their stunning production design. They achieve an incredible level of detail, even putting effort into the corners where no one ever looks, offering a sense of physical totality of the City.
Whilst the film attempts to be thought provoking, Proyas doesn’t dwell long on the complex issue of human individualism but instead much of the dialogue and gridded plot is sacrificed for the visual wow factor, which is undoubtedly achieved.
"Dark City “is certainly no Blade Runner, which I had hoped it would be, but the originality of the film over what could have been transformed into a terrible big-budget movie theatre train wreck is a welcomed relief. Whilst on a vastly smaller budget than the Matrix, in my opinion it achieves what the Matrix tried to do and then some.
Despite the sometimes unsatisfying plot however this film is not suitable for the passive viewer. If you let it, you are swept up inside the dark world answering often confusing questions along side John Murdoch (played by Rufus Sewell), resulting in blink and you’ll miss them plot revelations. Unlike most films released in the last five years, nothing is spelled out for you in this movie which is a refreshing change of pace.
The lack of world notoriety of the cast simply adds to the gritty feel of this movie. Rufus Sewell’s withdrawn and sultry character is perfectly played out as John Murdoch and as an audience we are definitely drawn into the journey with him. As an audience, as Murdoch discovers elements about his past which have been erased from his memory, we too are intrigued to learn more about him as the plot continues, genuinely empathizing with his situation. Jennifer Connolly is alluring and charming in her underplayed characterization of Murdoch’s wife. Overall the acting is solid, and despite critic’s suggestions that the performances are wooden, the understated acting simply adds to the confusion of their characters and the film.
Surprising Dark City was not a success at the box office at the time of its initial release in 1998. It was only on home video and on DVD in particular, that the film found its audience and carved its niche as a cult favorite.
Dark City will either grab you totally or leave you cold in the first few minutes.
It remains one of the most inspired and cinematically interesting science fiction films ever made and succeeds because it's dripping with that rarest of movie commodities - fresh new ideas.