This is when The Strangers conduct their experiments. This is when the city morphs and changes and things are rendered different. This is when an ordinary joe working a dead end job might wake up in an elegant townhouse to a life of luxury. For a while, at least. Until Dr Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) turns up again and selects a syringe from his medical bag. And with that injection, a new life, a new personality, a new set of memories.
John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a state of panic. He finds himself in a dingy apartment, immersed in a bathful of tepid and discoloured water. He remembers nothing. A suitcase embossed with the initials K.H. and a postcard from a coastal resort are the only clues he has to who and where he is.
A phone call alerts him to a matter of greater concern: he's a wanted man. He goes on the lam. Hassled by the cops, he's helped out of a tight spot by accommodating call girl May (Melissa George). She's sultry and voluptuous, but she's not the woman in the photograph in John's wallet. And besides, the dead girl in the apartment he's just fled suggests he might be a danger to her. He leaves.
Murdoch's wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) is approached by Dr Schreber and Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt). A nightclub singer whose repertoire of torch numbers reflects the pain of her break-up with John, she believes she can offer little or no help to either man.
The doctor and inspector have different agendas. Schreber has been assisting The Strangers in their experiments. He has a paid a price but inveigled himself into a position which even The Strangers have underestimated his potential to exploit. Bumstead is doggedly investigating a series of murders. His colleague Detective Walenski (Colin Friels) has been driven insane. But not, as Bumstead might think, by the case.
Alex Proyas's genre-bending cult classic predates 'The Matrix' by a year in its fusion of sci-fi and film noir tropes. It belongs equally to strands of cinema encompassing the innocent-man-accused chase thrillers of Hitchcock and the dystopian cityscapes of Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis'. Its mise-en-scenes abound with clues and symbols, its narrative unravelling through a maze of shadowy streets, dark doorways and confined spaces. Its protagonists conform to genre stereotypes (as The Strangers mean them to) but wear their humanity with a sense of hard-won of pragmatism. Bumstead is a journeyman copper who goes looking for facts and uncovers the truth. Emma has the look of a smouldering femme fatale and the heart of a romantic heroine. John is a confused innocent, lost and alone, with more power than even he realises.
'Dark City' is a low-key character piece realised on an epic scale. It found little favour at the box office, whereas the Wachowski brothers' adrenaline rush of high-wire stunts and Philosophy 101 made a killing. I don't begrudge 'The Matrix' its success - its terrific entertainment and holds a place in my affections which not even the leaden and pretentious self-indulgence of the sequels can dislodge - but I prefer 'Dark City'. It doesn't want to be cool and iconic and kick-ass. Its happy to stick to the shadows in a rain-wet and neon-drenched alleyway. Its images are darker and resonate longer in the memory. Did I mention that it predated 'The Matrix' by a year? Its poetic and haunting final image predates 'Requiem for a Dream' by two.