Science Fiction has always been, in my experience, the most polarizing genre in movies, and for good reason. Because of the outlandish nature of the material, Sci-Fi requires you to suspend your disbelief much more than any other piece of fiction. The slightest flaw in presentation, be it a silly character or costume, pacing issues, or a confusing plot, can strain credulity to the point where it’s impossible for moviegoers to buy in.
Take The Fifth Element, for example: People either go in whole hog for Luc Besson’s crazy vision of the future, ignoring the silly costumes and over-the-top presentation and just swearing loyalty to President Deebo, or they completely hate the film and want to choke Ruby Rhod out with a wooden spoon.
It’s that delicate balance between engaging the audience and completely taking them out of the experience that I think doomed Dark City to the dustbin of cinematic history, even though after it’s release in 1998, it holds up remarkably well – that is, if you watch the Director’s Cut.
Feeling as if audiences wouldn’t really understand what was going on, New Line Cinema forced Alex Proyas to make a bunch of unnecessary changes to the movie, including adding a voice-over to the beginning that explains the plot and the motivation of one of the major characters – a technique known in most circles these days as a “spoiler”. Moviegoers were robbed of the opportunity to unravel the mystery for themselves, completely ruining the film. It serves as a perfect example of corporate meddling compromising artistic vision, at the cost of potential revenue.
This is a critical point, because mystery is this film’s bread and butter. Our protagonist John Murdoch, played by Rufus Sewell, awakens in a seedy motel room with no memory of who he is, how he got there, or why there’s a dead hooker in the room with him. He soon finds himself chased down by a group called The Strangers, whose supernatural ability to alter the city at will using psychokinesis – referred to as “tuning” in the film – John has somehow inherited.
He’s also being chased by the police for his connection to several other murdered women by Detective Bumstead – played by John Hurt doing his best Jack Gittes impersonation. He’s assigned to the case after his predecessor is driven mad, not by the mystery behind the murders, but the mystery at the heart of the city itself: Why is the city draped in perpetual darkness? Why does it constantly change every night? The Strangers have the answers to these riddles, but they too are trying to solve a mystery – the mystery of the soul – and in so doing, save their race from extinction.
Attempting to unravel the various mysteries at the heart of both the city and the movie are what make Dark City such an enjoyable ride to take. The blending of science fiction and film noir give the film a unique and satisfying feel that I have yet to see repeated anywhere else.
The city itself is dark and menacing, both literally and figuratively, and, as previously mentioned, is constantly changing for reasons that are unraveled as the film moves along. The Metropolis-style architecture warps and twists at certain points, and doesn’t look too bad even by today’s standards. The city’s inhabitants are mostly oblivious to this, going along their daily routines with that Maltese Falcon style that reminded me of Captain Picard’s Dixon Hill holodeck program.
Sewell and Hurt give great performances, as does Jennifer Connelly as Murdoch’s estranged wife, but the standout is Kiefer Sutherland, who plays the physically and emotionally tormented assistant to The Stranger’s malevolent plans with an Igor vibe that really works.
The other standouts are The Strangers themselves, the ghoulish, trench-coat clad antagonists of the story. They’re exactly the type of figures you never want to meet in a dark alley, which is problematic in a city that’s essentially one big dark alley. Each one has a pale undead sheen about them, and they are super creepy – especially the child one that will haunt your dreams forever.
Dark City is a perfect showcase of one of sci-fi’s greatest strengths: adaptability. In the right hands, the medium can be used to tell amazing stories that stretch across multiple genres, from comedy and action to romance and political drama. But because of it’s central tenant – the exploration of the unknown – it works amazing well with mystery. Had producers not robbed audiences of the opportunity to get to the bottom of the mystery here, we might have gotten the chance to see it used this way more often.