Dark City (1998)

Director: Alex Proyas

Starring: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Richard O’Brien, Ian Richardson

Almost without fail, I can tell fairly early on whether or not I’m going to like a given film. I call it the “15 minute rule,” although it is probably closer to 20 minutes. I’m that generous. With “Dark City,” I was ready to write this one off as soon as it had begun. The opening narration, provided by Dr. Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), does nothing to warn us of the character’s speech impediment which is the cause of his breathless delivery. As Dr. Schreber tells us of the Strangers, an alien race with unusual mental powers referred to as “tuning,” it is difficult to process the information when all one can focus on is that damn voice. Even the characters in the movie have a hard time understanding what’s going on. If you are patient enough, you will learn as they do that nothing is what it seems.

John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) starts things off more confused than anyone. Waking up in a bathtub inside of a hotel room to find the dead body of a hooker, murdered possibly by his own hand, is the least of John’s problems. He has no memory, not just of how he got to his present location but of anything or anyone else. An urgent phone call from Dr. Schreber cues him in on the group of Strangers headed his way. Most unexpected (and never completely explained) is the revelation that John can “tune” just like the Strangers do. For the Strangers, this power means that they can change both the city and its inhabitants into whatever form they please. In John’s case, because he doesn’t understand his power at this stage, it merely provides a convenient means of escape.

John does learn his real name, and also that he has a wife named Emma (Jennifer Connelly). She is alleged to have had an affair that was the reason for John being in that hotel room instead of their home. Without any memory of these events, or even their marriage, it’s hard for John to work up any anger towards this woman. He does however eventually develop true feelings for her. He also learns that he’s the prime suspect in a serial murder investigation headed by Frank Bumstead (William Hurt). However, the most important thing weighing on John’s mind is the little bits of information he’s collected which are leading him to recollect his birthplace, Shell Beach, a place he would very much like to visit. The trouble is that no one seems to remember how to get there.

At any given moment, one half-expects Rod Serling to come popping out of the shadows. “Dark City” does possess a certain “Twilight Zone”-ish quality to it, especially in the big reveal moment at the end of the third act. But more than anything, it shares the most in common with Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and the question of what makes us human, a question which has the Strangers completely baffled. The Strangers’ bald heads, albino skin and dark leather attire makes them resemble the Cenobites from “Hellraiser,” minus the pins and needles. One of them even chatters his teeth a lot.

Director Alex Proyas continues to show his affection for film noir which he displayed in “The Crow,” only this time he’s all-in. Everything from the cars to Jennifer Connelly’s (obviously dubbed) nightclub scenes, William Hurt’s coat and fedora, and the fact that it’s always nighttime… It’s all very 1940’s. Although I’m fairly certain that Humphrey Bogart never had to deal with reality-bending aliens.

“Dark City” was one of the very first movies I ever bought direct from Amazon.com. I remember I had originally sought it out for Jennifer Connelly, for whom I can watch in just about anything. If I had never seen him in another movie after this, I would never have guessed that Rufus Sewell is English (although, right off-hand, I can’t think of any Americans I know named Rufus). I’ve seen him in a lot of bad guy roles since “Dark City,” but I always come back to his vulnerable amnesiac John Murdoch… my favorite of his characters… and cheer him on his hero’s quest. Once you get accustomed to his character’s look and speech, Kiefer Sutherland is as easy to follow as either Sewell or Connelly. Dr. Daniel Schreber may have a handle on his identity but he is as isolated as John is, and is as paranoid as his real-life namesake.

The real scene-stealer may be Richard O’Brien. Best known for writing the musical “The Rocky Horror Show” and co-writing the screenplay for the 1975 cult classic film adaptation “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” In actuality, it is O’Brien’s character Riff Raff from that 1975 film which served as the basis for the overall look of the Strangers, according to director Proyas. Here, O’Brien plays the evil Mr. Hand (no relation to the Ray Walston character from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”). Contrary to the rest of the Strangers, Mr. Hand is less curious than he is sadistic.

Somehow, as seems to always happen with superb science-fiction, “Dark City” slipped so far under the radar in 1998 as to come and go without much notice or fanfare. Critics really dug it, though. It’s the only other movie I know of besides “Citizen Kane” which includes a commentary track from Roger Ebert on the DVD. There’s a lot more going on in this movie that beg for a second viewing, as well as a third, fourth, fifth, etc. This is one of those movies that you don’t just enjoy. If you’re a true film aficionado, you analyze a movie like “Dark City.” Eventually, you’ll come to know all there is to know about what makes this film tick, and be the wiser for it.

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