Dark City
Director: Alex Proyas. Cast: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, William Hurt, Jennifer Connelly, Richard O'Brien, Ian Richardson, Colin Friels. Screenplay: Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs, and David S. Goyer.


Dark City is a fuller picture than director Alex Proyas' previous film The Crow, but that does not mean that the new film is necessarily more satisfying in every respect. Both films offer a similar grab-bag of considerable virtues and built-in limitations. The entire arc of The Crow was watching Brandon Lee's character avenge the low-lifes who had killed him and his wife (girlfriend? fiancée? whatever.) Around that simplest of stories, the Australian former video director tested his own hyperkinetic visual sensibilities on the big screen, pummeling us with image after image that, more often than not, were shot for the sake of their own ultra-vivid flashiness.

Now, in Dark City, Proyas has written a story (with collaborators Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer) that at least makes feints toward some narrative complexity—not that Dark City will ever be shown at a Writers Guild screening, but who's carping? The thread of this tale begins when John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell, forever looking like some sort of Byronic werewolf) awakes naked and bleeding in his bathtub. He does not remember getting there, and in fact suffers from a comprehensive amnesia that has erased any notion of where he is, who he is, who he knows...you get the idea.

All Murdoch knows, and this care of an anonymous courtesy call from a mad doctor played by Kiefer Sutherland, is that he better get out of the apartment, and fast. On the way is a small hit squad of supernatural psycho-terrorists called The Strangers, inevitably compared to Hellraiser's Pinhead, but more comfortably head-geared in black fedoras. Murdoch escapes, barely, but catches a glimpse of The Strangers just brief enough that Proyas imprints on us their fearsomeness but keeps them fairly hidden. It's the time-tested Jaws/Alien trick of only revealing your villain by fits and starts. Believe me, it works here; the Strangers are scary as space-hell.

So, for a good chunk of this hour-and-a-half movie, Murdoch darts around the city trying to avoid The Strangers as well as a Javert-ish police sergeant played by the much-missed William Hurt, who believes he has evidence linking Murdoch to a series of prostitute-murders in the sunless city. Meanwhile, Murdoch himself is trying to find someone, too: that would be Emma (Jennifer Connelly), a blowzy bar-singer who may or may not be his wife.

You'd think the guy has it tough enough, but imagine the additional psychic burdens of realizing that the entire city is, as the title broadcasts, always past nightfall; that the Strangers can actually stop time and perform strange brain injection-operations on the immobilized, unsensing citizens; and that no one besides Murdoch and that crazy doctor (whom he eventually meets) even seems to notice!

A bad day, all around. Or a bad un-day, I guess.

Now, the truth of all this tortuous plotting is that, for all its fussy now-this-and-now-that!, we don't really care all that much more about these events then we did about The Crow's search and destory mission. Proyas is still clearly in this for the visuals, and he still jump cuts so frequently that the movie seems to have its own case of the jitters. Unlike The Crow, though, Dark City actually accommodates this ocular bonanza as something more than easy showmanship: it's the best way to approximate for us John Murdoch's own fragmented and frightful perception of the world. As an audience, we are behind (or at least with) Murdoch more than we could be for Brandon Lee, whose pain was something we watched but rarely if ever felt.

Then again, making a schizophrenic movie to approximate schizophrenia is not exactly a new trick, and not a wholly welcome one for an entire hour and a half; Repulsion comes to mind quickly as a tighter, more creative film that sustained a similar psychological impact through a precision of shots, not a barrage of them. Nor does Dov Hoenig's rapid-fire editing make much sense in scenes like the reunion of John and Emma, or a long exposition by Doctor Schreber, all of which should definitionally comprise an escape from all the frenzy.

I suspect that Dark City is almost exactly the film Proyas intended to make of his script, which suggests not only that there is an audience for exactly this sort of thing, but that such an audience should have a whammy of a good time with it. And even if Dark City is a little off-putting in its basic approach, there is a bounty of good things to be said about it.

The performances of Sewell and Hurt for example, though hardly of great force or lasting power, are certainly well-calibrated to the story's demands, and in a few scenes they create the kind of interesting bond of man-to-man confession and admiration that Lee and Ernie Hudson achieved (even more successfully, I would argue) in The Crow. Even more to the film's credit, Proyas never abandons the ambitions of his project to create a more obvious or more marketable action flick; even the inevitable pyrotechnics of the end are invested with a sense of the characters involved, and the film throughout preserves its specific sense of atmosphere and an equally effective though entirely opposite unspecificity of particular time and place.

Dark City, for all its compromises, at least deserves the increasingly rare compliment that all of its scenes and gestures seem consistent with the work as a whole, and the project has been allowed to develop in total fidelity to its director's creative vision. The same could be said of David Cronenberg's Crash, which I thought was one of the ten best films of 1997 but plenty of other people hated completely; I can see Dark City producing similarly divided camps of admirers and detractors, though nothing in the film should prove as inflammably divisive as Cronenberg's basic premise.

Any praise of Dark City needs some qualification, but the film deserves a good, supportive audience. Ultimately, in its commitment to originality and its ambition to defy any real sense of genre, Proyas' film will hopefully send a message to other would-be thriller directors that mystery is still possible in the movies. B


Awards:
National Board of Review: Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking

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