"First there was darkness. Then came the strangers. They were a race as old as time itself. They had mastered the ultimate technology. The ability to alter physical reality by will alone. They called this "Tuning". But they were dying. Their civilisation was in decline, and so they abandoned their world seeking a cure for their own mortality. Their endless journey brought them to a small, blue world in the farthest corner of the galaxy. Our world. Here they thought they had finally found what they were searching for."
'Dark city' is the creation of Alex Proyas, a man that I have had mixed feelings towards for a while now. On one hand he directed 'The Crow' and 'I, Robot', two exceptionally stylish and exhilarating written works which he brought to the big screen with fantastic precision. On the other hand he also directed 'Knowing', one of the worst movies I have ever seen. (I really can't stress this enough. It's an abhorrent, big budget black hole which managed to be both boring and cringeworthy at the same time. It also features a ridiculous performance by Nicolas Cage, in which he flitted repeatedly from tediously wooden to inexplicably mental. The horror!) It baffles me that Proyas could go from such stylish cinematic zeniths to such a crushing nadir. Thankfully 'Dark City' is of the former category.
Again, the main strength of this movie is it's rich aesthetic. As mentioned previously I have a soft spot for dystopian science fiction (hence my adoration of masterpieces like 'Blade Runner' and 'Brazil'), 'Dark City' manages to perfectly occupy that surreal corridor between science fiction and film noir. The world here is one of perpetual night and the cityscape periodically shifts and alters like clockwork under a veil of sinister shadow. There is a constant inkling that the central characters are rats in a maze, that they are being specially positioned and forced down avenues in a city which never truly feels tangible. This constant feeling of conspiracy bubbles beneath the surface throughtout.
Aside from the powerful visual and atmospheric qualities of 'Dark City', the plot is also very engaging. A man wakes up in the bath of a strange hotel room, no name, no memories and no recollection of the city around him. Soon he begins to tumble down the rabbit hole and becomes entwined with murder and manipulation. Faces and buildings keep changing and he knows there is something fundamentally wrong with this place. Proyas demonstrates with great panache an ability to write a screenplay which is fantastical and morbid in equal measure, whilst at it's core being essentially a "small guy versus the state" story. It could almost have been written by Gilliam himself...almost. It also, like all good science fiction, raises cerebral questions along the way - questions surrounding our memories, our individuality and how humans are more than the sum of their parts.
Rufus Sewell is suitably baffled yet rebellious as 'John Murdock', whilst William Hurt and Jennifer Connelly put in characteristically solid performances as the cantankerous detective and sultry love interest. But it is the darker characters which seem to have the most presence. Kiefer Sutherland completely steals the show as 'Dr Schreber', an eccentric and miry psychiatrist with a gasping voice who never seems completely trustworthy. But well judged performances aside, it will be the villains of the movie that linger in the mind.
"The Strangers" are telepathic lifefoms with a hive-mind. They move and talk in eery unison, draped in black trench coats, gliding in and out of shadow and always watching. They are pretty terrifying and the appearance of black leather on cold, white skin is reminiscent of the masochistic bondage imagery employed in 'Hellraiser'. I also believe that the Wachowski brothers owe a lot to 'Dark City'. It may have only come out a year before 'The Matrix' but I find it very hard to believe that the 'Agents' of 'The Matrix' were not heavily influenced by "The Strangers" of 'Dark City'. There is even an 'Agent Smith' like character in 'Dark City' called "Mr Hand". The plots are also very similar in many ways too. It seems that the Wachowski brothers didn't solely plunder 'Akira' and 'Ghost in the Shell' for "inspiration". This is not to say that I don't like 'The Matrix' (I don't like the sequels, but that's another thing entirely). It is a brilliant movie and so much slicker but the thing I like about 'Dark City' is that it's more subtle and thoughtful in the scenes that really count.
'Dark City' more than holds it's own against 'The Matrix', it relies more on dialogue and doesn't give you answers on a plate. It's a tremendous backdrop to become absorbed in mystery. I would recommend this movie to fans of science fiction and of surreal and morose fantasy alike. The most concise way that I can describe it is 'Memento' meets 'Metropilis'. It's a potent cocktail of clashing elements which surprisingly accentuate each other and lift the movie to a higher note. This collage of ideas and themes doesn't lend itself to great commercial success (like 'The Matrix') but it will ensure that 'Dark City' continues to be a cult classic. See you at Shell Beach.
The following is a great video that I found which illustrates the suspicious similarities between 'The Matrix' and 'Dark City' as well as their unique strengths.