John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakens in a bathroom while the bare lightbulb sways above him and as he gathers his wits he realises that he has no recollection of who he is, where he has come from or what he is doing here. He climbs out of the tub and goes over to his clothes, putting them on then gingerly opening the door to see if anyone is there. As he walks into the dark room, he accidentally knocks over a goldfish bowl and smashes it, rescuing the creature inside by placing it in the bath. Suddenly the telephone rings and a voice on the other end tells him anxiously that he must get out of there as quickly as possible - when he sees the dead body in the room he knows why...
Dark City was a film that made a few ripples back in 1998, but that was about all, with only really critic Roger Ebert championing it as a modern classic. Since then, some caught it on television or on home video and latched onto it as Ebert had done, as an unsung gem of its kind, and as such its standing has been raised to the extent that it's a bona fide cult film. So what do those fans who like it, even love it now see that all those others did not? It could be the whole look of the film, one which contributes immeasurably to its atmosphere of off-kilter film noir, and there's no shortage of flair as far as the visuals went.
But if you listen to the film, then you might be inclined to side with those who were underwhelmed back in the late nineties, as although the production promises some worthwhile musing over the state of the human condition, always a nice idea for science fiction to tackle even if it too rarely turns out that way, it never fulfils that prospect. The dialogue is merely functional, so it could be that the pretentiousness of a blockbuster which arrived the following year and did much of what Dark City did to more crowdpleasing effect might have stolen its thunder. That blockbuster was The Matrix, a film which not only used some of the distinctive sets of this film, but utilised many of its plot points as well.
Both movies concern themselves with a character who "wakes up" (there is a lot of dream and sleep imagery in Dark City) to come to terms with the fact that the world is not what they believed it to be, and they are the heroic figure designed to save the population from their slumbering exploitation by others. In this case, it's space aliens who are controlling the urban landscape, never allowing a sun to rise and altering the buildings and the personalities of the citizens as they see fit every time the clock reaches midnight. If it sounds as if I'm giving too much away, then I should really have been, but director Alex Proyas gives the game away far too early himself.
The story shows its hand in the early stages, effectively it is giving us all the information we need to work out what is going on, and it's quite a simple concept so doesn't need much explanation, therefore we are in a privileged position as observers, as the aliens are. There should have been more mystery, as the murder aspect is thrown away too casually, so although we might be concerned that one of the sympathetic characters, say Emma (Jennifer Connelly looking every inch the glamorous film noir dame), John's supposed wife, might fall victim to the villains' strategies, we do not have enough invested emotionally in them to care. With every person in this a cypher at the whims of the "strangers" apart from John and the questions of destiny and fate this elicits never investigated, then you're left to drink in the charms of the film's appearance, which may be handsome, but overwhelm a flimsy tale. Music by Trevor Jones.
Egyptian-born director who grew up in Australia and directed dozens of high-profile music videos and commercials during the 1980s. Proyas's feature debut was the low-budget Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds, but it was 1994's The Crow that brought him mainstream success and introduced his dark, stylish take on sci-fi and fantasy. Dark City was a futuristic film noir, while the Asimov-inspired I, Robot was one of 2004's biggest hits and Knowing an effects-filled addition to the popular apocalypse cycle. Also directed the Australian rock comedy Garage Days and much-lambasted fantasy flop Gods of Egypt, which caused him to have a public meltdown.
Count me among Dark City's admirers, although I concede your point that more should have been made of the murder mystery element. William Hurt's detective is almost superfluous to events. Years back Phil Hardy's Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction Films noted the obscure Bruce Campbell movie Mindwarp might prove influential in the coming years with its artificial reality plot. But I contend that The Matrix, Dark City et al might have at least been partially influenced by the anime classic Megazone 23, wherein humanity resides within artificial reality aboard a giant spacecraft secretly at war with aliens.
7 Dec 2009
Maybe, but Doctor Who had a "virtual reality" (remember that?!) story in the 1970s with The Deadly Assassin, and Harlan Ellison wrote the short story I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream back in the sixties, which has the same idea at its core.
8 Dec 2009
Yes of course science fiction literature latched onto "virtual" worlds years ahead of the movies. Plus there were loads of those comic book shockers a la 2000 A.D. where characters found themselves trapped in a giant video game. And there's Welcome To Blood City of course (yuck!). So plenty of predecessors but I would point out that Megazone 23 has both the "guy on the run for a murder he didn't commit" sub-plot, reality-bending alien invaders, and those spidery robots that pop up in The Matrix.