For all of the acclaim Dark City received after its initial, disastrous theatrical release in 1998 -- movie-of-the-year and DVD commentary honors from Roger Ebert; cult adoration; an eventual director's cut -- it probably still hasn't reached anywhere close to the number of people who saw, say, The Matrix (released just about a year later). Perhaps this has to do with the way the film shrouds its ideas in noir mystery rather than cyberpunk fashion; if The Matrix turned a broad audience into geeks who wanted to know kung fu, Dark City seemed ready-made for those whose geekery was established, though the film is broad enough to welcome nerds of the film, sci-fi, and perhaps even architecture varieties.
The Matrix is not a random comparison, mind you; the two films toy with similar ideas about the meaning of humanity, memory, and self-perception (they also share a second-unit director, though unless he is a brilliant stealth screenwriter, it is probably a coincidence). Dark City, directed by Alex Proyas, is less thrilling and sleek than its cousin, but equally imaginative, full of twisty images and clever synthesis of the movies that inspired it. It gives geeks a good name.
The film begins with intriguing if unnecessary narration about a race of beings referred to as the Strangers, but quickly proceeds to its irresistible hook: John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a bathtub with no memory and the police, led by Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt), hot on his tail. The Strangers, who look a bit like corpses reanimated from the set of a forties noir, are also after him, as is the stutter-breathed Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), who sounds a bit like Igor and may be just as eager to help.
As Murdoch wanders the shadowy streets -- the unnamed city never seems to reach daylight -- he tries to piece together his life. There are chases and confrontations, as well as gorgeous and elaborate set design, including a subterranean fortress that looks inspired (like so many movies) by Fritz Lang's Metropolis, but the movie isn't a patchwork thriller. The filmmakers build on their influences with great style.
The screenplay is credited to a team of once and future pulp aficionados: Lem Dobbs (who wrote The Limey), David Goyer (who had a hand in the Blade and latter-day Batman franchises), and Proyas himself, who had just made The Crow, a comic-book movie that out-darkened and out-gothed the then-king of the genre, Tim Burton. Dark City is a less emotional creature than The Crow -- instead of romanticized, teenager-friendly doominess, it has an everyman practicality even amidst its amazing sights. The characters in The Crow seemed at home in their fantasy world; the sharper people of Dark City get suspicious, confused, lost in the shadows.
It helps that the movie has no major stars; Sewell, Sutherland, and Jennifer Connelly (as Murdoch's estranged wife) take on a timeless, earnest, B-picture quality, simply and skillfully avoiding playing larger than life. Even Hurt's scene-stealing is understated; Bumstead is dry and wary, though he shares many of Murdoch's questions and suspicions. Their dialogue is sometimes stiff, even expository -- if anything, the movie is initially too quick to explain some of its mysteries -- but for the most part it works as part of the film's style, which mixes visual marvels with B-movie archetypes and is actually derived from its substance: humanity as a pulp experiment, struggling as existential playthings.
It might all sink with heavy ambition without Proyas's visual fireworks, which he has yet to match in subsequent films. The camera swings from one striking image to another -- mutating buildings; floating, ghoulish men; endless shadows (the cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski, went on to work with Tim Burton and Disney's Pirates trilogy). The special effects age well not because they pioneered any particular technique, but because they serve the story. That story doesn't end with a definitive bang, but it doesn't allow much room for Matrix-style sequels, either. It departs this world when it should, floating on and leaving the rest to us -- or the geeks, anyway.
The Director's Cut DVD includes a number of commentary tracks (including Ebert's), plus two making-of featurettes.
What, your city doesn't have a giant, disembodied skull floating in the middle of it? Weak.