Julien Neaves, Sci Fi Head Writer
On August 15 flickeringmyth.com reported Alex Proyas, director of 1998 neo-noir Sci Fi flick Dark City, was developing atelevision series based on his film. The movie follows an amnesiac man named John Murdoch who awakens in a strange, bleak city where creepy, pale-faced people called “The Strangers” stalk the night.
So while I usually like to do my retrospective reviews on anniversaries, this bit of news is a perfect excuse to jump in early. And therefore with a city-sized SPOILER ALERT let’s turn down nostalgia lane and take a detour to Dark City for a retro review in 4 slices:
Slice 1: The City
Before we get into character, plot, pacing and all that jazz we have to talk about the city itself. Even before the viewer discovers the twist that it is floating in space as part of an experiment by the Strangers’ to discover the secret of the human soul and save their dying alien race (wow, that’s a mouthful) there’s an odd, unnerving, breathing, dreamlike (or nightmare-like) quality to this place. With its Gothic architecture like Tim Burton’s Gotham, perpetual night and its luridly illuminated surfaces it feels like the entire city is trying to drug you into unconsciousness before stealing your wallet and slitting your throat.
We later learn the Strangers have an aversion for light so that explains why this city is so, well, dark. High-ranking Stranger Mr Hand explains that the architecture is an amalgam of different times which would only heighten the surreal quality. Kudos to the production design because this is one vile-looking place I would not want to live in or even visit. And just from its look it immediately tells the viewer that something is very wrong here.
Slice 2: The Residents
And what of the residents of Dark City? The general populace all seem to be in a daze and overly tired, which makes sense since the Strangers keep putting everyone to sleep and then swapping around their memories and lives. Our hero John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell of The Legend of Zorro, The Man in the High Castle) wakes up in a room with a ritualistically murdered prostitute and no memory of how he got there. Don’t do drugs kids! Sewell does well in selling the confused desperation of the character but I found his performance could have used some more weight and nuance. I also found he needed some more presence during the final act when he becomes a superpowered force (more on that later).
Sewell also lacked chemistry with the luminous Jennifer Connelly who plays his concerned wife-but-not-really Emma. Connelly is good with her sultry just-above-a-whisper voice and intimate looks, but their romance was as intangible as their fake world. The standout performances are actually William Hurt as world-weary cop Inspector Frank Bumstead and Kiefer Sutherland as the Strangers’ pet scientist Dr Daniel P. Schreber. Hurt nails the detached, steely-nerves cop archetype of noir films and heightened every scene he was in. And Sutherland looked like he was a having a ball as the oddball, slightly unhinged and extremely shady Dr Schreber, who would not look out of place assisting Dr Frankenstein in his latest experiment. Both the audience and John are dubious whether they should trust him or run from him, and his loyalties and motives feel questionable until the end. Definitely one of Sutherland’s more memorable performances.
Slice 3: The Strangers
And now to the men behind the curtain, The Strangers. The design of these guys is just fantastic. Their pale, deathly skin is highlighted by their all-black ensembles, both their trench coat, hat and gloves “undercover” look and their leather, Hellraiser-esque outfits. They also have this animalistic clicking that is pure nightmare fuel. If there were really worm-like aliens inhabiting dead human bodies I’m pretty sure this is what they would look like.
The Stranger we spend the most time with is Mr Hand, played with delightful deviousness by Richard O’Brien. There is an almost Dracula-like quality to his methodical movements and stilted speech. We also have that “kid” Stranger who is just kind of horrifying with his chattering teeth and character actor Bruce Spence (Mad Max 2, Revenge of the Sith, The Matrix Revolutions) using his height to add some menace as Mr Wall. The scenes of the Strangers levitating around like vampires and swaying like tree branches in the wind in their conclave were two very memorable moments. And I suspect of everything in this film one of the aspects that remain engraved in viewers’ minds two decades later is the striking look of these dastardly villains.
Slice 4: Forever Night
As I begin to wrap up this review it would be remiss of me not to talk about the similarities to The Matrix which came out a year later. And there are many. Humans trapped in an artificial world? Check. Shadowy figures in black keeping humans under control? Double check. Hero who discovers the truth about the fake world and uses telekinetic powers to defeat those in control? Triple check. Heck, there is a scene where Dr Schreber phones John and tells him that people are coming from him which feels very familiar to the Morpheus/Neo phone call in The Matrix. The squid-like look of the Strangers also reminded of the machines’ technology in The Matrix. But the films are two very different beasts, with The Matrix focusing more on action and set pieces than hard Sci Fi storytelling while Dark City focused more on atmosphere and existential Sci Fi storytelling. Is a person the sum of their memories (real or fabricated) or are they more?
And the story is a pretty good one. There’s mystery and murder and sex and intrigue and romance and creepy telekinetic aliens. It does keep the viewer invested as each layer is peeled back. There are few chinks in the armour though. The visual effects are somewhat dated and both the telekinetic “tuning” pulses and true form of the aliens don’t really hold up. Plot-wise it is never explained why John evolved and gained their tuning ability. Though the Strangers are said to have a hive mind it is clear that they still move and operate as individuals. Their plan to save their race by discovering the human soul is also vague at best. And though the billboard action sequence was cool the final battle between Murdoch and Mr Book is over way too quick.
Despite these issues. Dark City remains a unique, engrossing and enjoyable watch more than 20 years later. And I will definitely be tuning in (Get it? Tuning? You get it) whenever Proyas drops his Dark City TV series.
Editor Jules’s Score: 8 out of 10
So are you a fan of Dark City? And how do you feel about the announced TV series. And you can check out more retro Sci Fi action below:
Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.