moviebuff801: Time Capsule Reviews: Dark City (1998)

Posted: January 28, 2013 by moviebuff801 in moviebuff801's Movie Reviews, Time Capsule Reviews

Release Date: February 27th, 1998

Running Time: 1 hour and 51 minutes

Written by: Alex Proyas, David S. Goyer, Lem Dobbs

Directed by: Alex Proyas

Starring: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt

Note: I’m reviewing the Director’s Cut of Dark City, which is 12-15 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, however, I won’t be dwelling on any differences between the two versions.

Dark City is my kind of science fiction film, one that explores interesting themes and ideas with hypnotic grace and skill, and always does so in the most captivating way possible.  Whereas most other science fiction films seem content with just creating cool futuristic or intergalactic settings and merely setting a story in them, Dark City is part of the upper tier of the genre, the one which creates a fascinatingly weird environment and then explores every nook and crevice of it to the point where it feels like we were actually there for two hours.  This is one of my favorite science fiction films of all-time.

One night, a man named John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a bathtub dazed and confused, with a line of blood on his forehead.  In the next room is the dead body of an unknown woman, with strange symbols carved into her flesh.  The phone rings, and on the other end of the line is the voice of Dr. Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), warning John to run and that “they’re” coming for him.  This is only the strange start of an even stranger series of events that sees John on the run from both the police and a mysterious group known only as “The Strangers” after he discovers that he’s been framed for a chain of similar murders.  Meanwhile, John’s wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) tries her best to help her husband by going to Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt), who’s been put in charge of the case, to convince him of John’s innocence.  But while he pieces together the jagged clues while on the run, John begins to piece together a much larger and more bizarre conspiracy that’s at work within the shadows … one with implications far more serious than a simple murder spree.

Dark City is a triumph of blending imagination and storytelling so that the end result is something truly exhilarating.  It has the look of Blade Runner and the deep, philosophical tendencies of The Matrix, and in my opinion, it’s better than both of those movies.  I can’t tell you how great it is to both be invested in a film’s story and engaged by its ideas at the same time, to the point where the film is able to put you in a trance until the end credits start to roll.  Right from the opening few minutes, the film thrusts us into its world and story in such a way that as John Murdoch feverishly attempts to figure out just what the hell is going on, we share his confusion as well.  From there, director Alex Proyas gradually lets us in on all of the secrets, but with such precision that he always has us eager to get to the next scene in order to dig deeper into what he and his fellow writers have created.  And I have to reiterate how great of a feeling that is, to be constantly invested in a film from minute to minute, as opposed to just the first few until we get a good idea of where everything’s going, and not once have that investment falter in any way.  Not many films give me the same feeling of fascination I had upon a first viewing with each subsequent watch, but Dark City is one of those rare few.

Part of that fascination comes from the way the film seamlessly blends genres together.  All at once, Dark City plays out like smart sci-fi, a moody and engrossing neo noir and an effectively atmospheric horror film.  But the good news is that none of those elements ever outweigh the other; the screenplay balances everything perfectly.  Another strength of the screenplay, penned by Proyas, David S. Goyer and Lem Dobbs, is how it takes story elements such as a murder investigation, an amnesiac trying to regain his memories and a hard-boiled detective chasing the hero at every turn, and makes them fresh by putting them in such a fresh environment.  Said environment is so fresh, in fact, that the city of the title literally feels alive, in more ways than one.  But that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Speaking of the city, though, the film sports a great production design.  The city itself looks and feels like an extension of the story and its off-kilter nature, and it helps lend a palpable sense of atmosphere to the proceedings.  The film’s neo noir feel is born out of the way the city looks and is lighted, but at the same time, it also has that look of something intrinsically science fiction.  The effective and unusual score by Trevor Jones is another element that builds the film’s personality.

As if any of the above wasn’t enough, Dark City also takes it upon itself to explore the themes of individuality and identity in a very creative and interesting way, but I’m choosing not to go into too much detail about that.  As I said, part of the fun with Dark City is discovering its secrets for yourself the first time you see it, but for those of you who are already acquainted with this film, you know what I’m getting at here.  All I will say is that the overall handling of the story’s central themes and ideas demonstrates a type of skill from Proyas that he has generally been unable to achieve again in his films since this one.  But the ideas that Dark City deals with, and the ways in which it deals with them, are prime examples of why I consider this film to be superior to something like The Matrix.

And I can’t get through this review without mentioning the strong performances by the cast.  Rufus Sewell is able to capture his character’s curiosity and unwillingness to go silently into this dark city with ease, while the more soft-spoken work from others like Jennifer Connelly and William Hurt only adds to the air of mystery surrounding the story, and serves to pull us further in.  And the actors who portray “The Strangers” bring an unsettling sense of superiority and sinister-ness that accentuates their position of control in the film.

I can’t recommend Dark City highly enough.  From beginning to end, it’s an endlessly intriguing film with incredible ambitiousness where both story and ideas are concerned.  It deservedly ranks among my Top Twenty All-Time Favorite Films.


  1. r361n4 says:

    Excellent choice for a perfect score! Between this and The Crowe Proyas is golden in my book

  2. moviebuff801 says:

    I haven’t seen The Crow yet, but I’ll certainly try to pretty soon!

  3. Many terminators played the Strangers.

  4. Cool review, guys. Dark City is the perfect match of Terry Gilliam absurdity and Matrix’s lofty ideas. Wolski is on fine form in the cinematographer’s chair too!

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