“Dark City” is one of my favorite movies of the ’90s. It is one of the most atmospheric and creatively stimulating movies I have ever come across. Forget the fact that director Alex Proyas is a visual genius, because the acting is spot on, the cinematography is awe-inspiring, and the production design is mind-blowing. The movie moves at a quick pace but slows down just enough to let us truly enjoy the marvel that is the surroundings of Proyas’ city. The city itself is a wonder, a mixture of ’20s-era culture, gothic architecture, and futuristic designs. The film’s setting is basically anachronistic, and we find out why by movie’s end.
The movie stars Rufus Sewell (“A Knight’s Tale”) as John Murdoch, a man who wakes up one night in a hotel bathtub within the dark city of the title. He discovers that the police, led by William Hurt (“Dune”), are after him for a series of serial killings. Now on the run but unable to comprehend what’s happened to him, Murdoch begins to realize that he doesn’t remember what daylight looks like, and, it seems, neither does anyone else. When confronted with this question, even Hurt’s Inspector Bumstead has no answers. Worst, a beachfront property called “Shell Beach” keeps appearing in Murdoch’s head as well as on bulletin board advertisements, but no one knows how to get there!
When he attempts to take a subway train to Shell Beach, Murdoch ends right back where he started. When he asks a cabbie to take him to the elusive locale, the cabbie is stumped. It isn’t long before Murdoch starts to realize that strange things are happening to the city — namely that it completely shuts down at exactly midnight. Along with the city, the citizens all fall asleep at the exact same time. The problem is, Murdoch is the only one awake to realize this. To top it off, there are strange-looking men in top hats and black coats floating around the city, and buildings are appearing and disappearing out of the ground.
What in the bloody hell is going on here?
That is exactly the question writer/director Alex Proyas (“The Crow”) wants his audience to ask. Although there is an explanation via voiceover in the beginning, the real answers lie at the end of the movie, when Kiefer Sutherland’s Dr. Schreber, a strange looking man in the service of those entities in top hats and black coats, provides exposition in the most unexpected way. The cast couldn’t be more perfect, with the soulful eyes of Rufus Sewell taking us on this unsettling, maddening, and puzzling journey, while William Hurt provides a calm anchor as Inspector Bumstead. Jennifer Connelly (“A Beautiful Mind”) steams up the place, proving once again that she’s one of the most beautiful women in cinema today.
The direction by Alex Proyas, in combination with the movie’s set designers and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (“Bad Company”), are the real stars of “Dark City”. The film is a spectacular visual treat, from the dizzying and bizarre cityscape to the blanket of darkness that drapes the city. This is a movie that begs to be enjoyed as nothing more than eye candy, only it has a strong script by Proyas and co-writers Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer (“Blade”) to help flesh out the characters and their mysterious backgrounds. Along the way, we also get dissertations on what constitutes a man — his memories of the past, or what he makes of his life in the present and future.
But let’s be honest. Very few people will be able to see past the set designs of “Dark City”, and to be sure the set designs are incredible to behold. The city itself is alive and vibrant, and even covered in darkness, every alley and building pulses with life. The action sequences in “Dark City” are also groundbreaking. In a way, the movie is really a Superhero Origins story. Murdoch must discover who he is, his powers, and then battle the forces of evil by thwarting their scheme. And superpowers have never looked better than under Proyas’ gifted hands.
There is a truly wonderful movie here that begs to be discovered. It’s too bad so many people missed it when it first came out in 1998. But then again, that’s what DVDs and videos are for. Don’t miss a modern classic like “Dark City”, a movie that makes a film like “The Matrix”, with its pseudo philosophies and myths, look like child’s play.
Alex Proyas (director) / Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs, David S. Goyer (screenplay)
CAST: Rufus Sewell …. John Murdoch
William Hurt …. Inspector Frank Bumstead
Kiefer Sutherland …. Dr. Daniel Schreber
Jennifer Connelly …. Emma Murdoch/Anna
Richard O’Brien …. Mr. Hand