The Test of Time: Dark City (1998)

We all have movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? So…the point of this here column is whether of not a film stands the test of time. I’m not gonna question whether it’s still a good flick, but if the thing holds up for a modern audience.

Director: Alex Proyas
Starring: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, and William Hurt

Sometimes budgets are creativity killers. Certain directors, it seems, do their best shit without $120 million on the line. I think Sam Raimi material is best when he has to get inventive and not rely on a digital effects team. Same goes for Tim Burton. Add too many pricey effects and for whatever reason, it takes away the genius. Just because something can be created by CGI doesn’t mean it always should.

Another director who works best without high level studio expectations and limited resources is Alex Proyas, who seems to flourish without the tent pole pressure. Like Burton, his worlds look dark, gritty, and mean (see The Crow) until he goes big time. I, Robot is a fun flick, but it feels too glossy, too average, too safe as if Proyas received one too many studio notes and had to ensure Will Smith had a great time. Leave Proyas alone and the audience will be treated to movies like his follow up to the classic The Crow.

Under the examination: Dark City.

THE STORY: A man named John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a bathtub to find out he is a murderer, even though he has no idea about it. As he starts to ask questions, things get complicated. (If you’ve never seen the film it’s best to go in with only that amount of plot already given.) He’s married to a woman named Emma (Jennifer Connelly) but never met her. An inspector Bumstead (William Hurt) is on his trail as he’s hunting a serial killer. Murdoch meets a shady doctor (Kiefer Sutherland) who has “theories” on what's occurring and a lot vague answers. Then he starts seeing a gang of stylish bald gangsters -- who can float. They are called the Strangers, and they enjoy f*cking with people’s memories so much that they invent lives, careers, and back stories to see what happens. Then Murdoch gets pissed.

Such power in such fingertips.

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: Damn near everything. Dark City is the perfect example of blended genres: science fiction, supernatural, conspiracy, film noir, murder mystery, investigation, and mind f*ck. That’s not an easy concoction to pull off, but Proyas does it, and does it with style. The movie looks tremendous as we dive into a Gothic world that’ll remind everyone of Burton’s Batman, but that’s ok. It’s not like Burton invented the retro urban nightmare. This film’s strength is playing on expectations and then toying with them. When elements start to feel clichéd, we realize it’s because of the point of view of this world. It’s what the Strangers think Earth is like, which gives a purpose for clichés like the film noir fedoras or why the Strangers dress like 1950s B-movie gangsters. It’s never revealed how long they’ve had their humans, but it’s safe to say it’s been a while. Essentially, the Strangers have their own studio and a collection of actors who have no idea they're in the middle of a performance. 

Everything in this world a blank canvas as the Strangers can change things up every night at midnight, though time here really doesn’t exist here. Sunshine is a foreign concept. Everyone seems to work night gigs. However, they don’t change everything. Shell Beach is one of the few consistencies here. A place where dreams are made, a place of escapism for everyone to look forward to. The audience expects the film to follow specific paths, which it does to a point, and then puts in a sidewalk to a new area. In the end, the film is about exploring the idea of humanity, which obviously isn’t a first for science fiction, but it feels fresh and original because of the film noir/murder mystery plot. We have to learn with Murdoch, and Sewell kicks ass here. He approached the role humility and confusion, making Murdoch completely believable. If Dark City had hit it big (like the Matrix did a short time later), I wonder if Sewell’s career would have hit too. Dude would have deserved it.

These guys look like a lot of fun.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: The film ends up a bit on the repetitive side, which obviously is necessary since it ends up being about memories and dreams. I found Murdoch’s flashbacks overused as they repeat the same generic memories over and over. Its not the redundancy that’s annoying, but more the fact that his memories are dumb: going to the beach, at school, a fire, his wife. That’s an entire lifetime summed up? As he attempts to explore them, they remain surface level, which becomes explained because of the Strangers and their experiments. Still, that gets old. You’d think if they were implanted an entire life into people that it’d consist of more.With that said, I never understand the power of the Strangers. They can fly and create buildings at will, yet some of them get killed when they can't move fast enough. Couldn't they just fly away, or do only certain baldies possess certain powers?

Thematically, Dark City does suffer from the shadow of The Matrix, which is impossible to avoid as they are damn close. Both revolve around repressed civilizations who are in need of the one to led them back to the promise leave, but since Dark City came first, I won't harp on it. The effects mostly look, well, effective, and Proyas director’s cut improved that. It’s slightly longer with touch ups on look and sound (oh and they ditched the narration thankfully). The only fault in the acting would be Kiefer Sutherland. I won’t say he sucks here, but this was a time when his career was low, and it appears he was trying to “act” himself back in the game. I give him credit for it, even if it’s a little much with the whole stutter, stiff leg, crazy eye approach. It’s distracting at times, which I guess really isn't his fault but after nine years of Jack Bauer screaming about time, taking him seriously in a character role ain’t the easiest thing to do.

There isn't time! I'm an actor!

THE VERDICT: I complained earlier that budgets sometimes hamper creativity. Dark City is a case where the film still feels epic despite the limited resources to create an entire, moveable city landscape (think Inception on the cheap). Oh sure, the CGI could have been grander, the city could have been bigger, and the detail could have been doubled but then Dark City would lose the darkness; its gritty Gothic nightmare of claustrophobia. If a movie wants to feel like close quarter film noir, it can only feel so big. Nearly 15 years after its release, Dark City still holds up. It'll be a movie that never looks outdated because it it can't be placed in a certain time or era. It just exists, ready to impress the next viewer up.






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