Saturday, January 16, 2010

Dark City

At midnight, the city shuts down. Cars stop as if their engines have died. Elevated trains slow to a halt. People sleep. Silence settles. Everything is held in stasis.

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.


Kevin J. Olson said...

Great stuff, Neil. This is one of my favorite movies of the 90's. I remember being in high school when it came out and talking about how great it was, and then when The Matrix came out a year later having to tell my fellow classmates that thwere was a better movie out there in Dark City.

I like what you say about Proyas' film being content with itself, and not having to be a Philosophy 101 type movie, as you so aptly put it, but it's confident enough in its theories and metaphors that it doesn't have to hit us over the head with them.

I like Proyas' aesthetic more than The Wojo Bros., too, because I think Dark City is probably the best mix of Science Fiction and German Expressionism that I've seen since the silent era masterpieces.

The themes of government control and the metaphor of the spirals is what sets the film apart from most Science Fiction movies (especially movies with aliens involves). I also really liked Sutherland doing his best Peter Lorre.

The film is rich with allusions the great Expressionists like Lang, and it's also constructed in a way where it gets us thinking about some of its deeper themes without having to talk about it to death like The Matrix does...I mean the whole opening of Dark City just kind of begins in medias res, and from that point on the chase never really stops. It's a relentless film without feeling like too much is going on, and that's a huge tribute to what Proyas and his crew were able to do here.

This is just a great movie...nice work, Neil.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks, Kevin. I deliberately tried not to get too heavily into a discussion of the expressionism and silent movie homages that are rife throughout 'Dark City' - any film lover worth their salt will understand exactly what Proyas is doing with the visual style - but instead concentrate on the mood of the piece. As you say, the film has an edgy relentlessness from the opening frames. It's also a full an expression of the film noir as it is sci-fi in that it makes the city a character in its own right. The Shell Beach references, culminating in Sewell's discovery of the wall painted with the Shell Beach mural (and what lies behind it) gives the film a real sense of mystery.

The casting is perfect, too; good call on Sutherland's personification. Sewell also works well, the scene where he runs between the stopped cars full of sleeping drivers and passengers, screaming at them to wake up, his demeanour becoming ever more agitated, cross-pollinates film noir and paranoid 50s sci-fi such as 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers'. Jennifer Connelly is beguiling and has the 40s/50s glamour look off to a tee.

'Dark City' is a criminally underappreciated film and it's a damn shame that Proyas's career has seen him at the helm of increasingly impersonal and journeyman fare.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Well, you know me Neil, I like to get into the theme of things. And the themes on this one are pretty heavy.

Theres that "everything you've been taught is a lie" angle to the film. Nothing is what you thought it was, theres an underlying truth that you have to search for.

I loved the whole idea of humans being experiments. I think its where the movie has a lot of its guts, I mean, whats this movie really saying anyways? That we have been taught a lie, and that we need to search out the real truth.

The main character wakes up in a state of confusion, as we are when we are born. But the world quickly lets us know what rules we need to play by, much like the characters in this film. Are we going to play by the rules, let old ideas linger on, mold us and tell us what to do? Or are we going to be the ones changing and molding our lives?

I loved that idea, about the Strangers changing everything with the power of their minds. They change things for us, make things the way they want them to be. But shouldnt we be the ones choosing how our lives should be?

Thats why I loved the main character so much. He has woken up from the stupor. He is using the power of his mind to find the real truth and live his life in the way that he chooses. It is he who is going to change his environment, not The Strangers. But in order to do that, he has to find the truth.

He ultimatelyl has to FACE the strangers. Who are these guys trying to tell me what I have to do with my life? I loved how the film uses telekinesis as a metaphor for what we can do with our lives when we set our minds to it. That finally face off against the awesome.

Essentially, its mind against mind. Ideas against ideas. Who's is more powerful? Is the control the mind of the strangers has over us stronger then our own mind? Or can we take control? I loved that about this movie, what it says, its actually powerful stuff, daring.

The movies daring themes are deftly hidden amidst the science fiction noir elements. Like a code we have to figure out.

Neil Fulwood said...

A very incisive analysis of the film, Francisco. You're absolutely right in pointing out that a search for the truth, a realisation that we're being lied to and controlled and manipulated, is a key theme of 'Dark City'. I think this is where Alex Proyas made his boldest and cleverest stroke - using the imagery and atmosphere of film noir, a genre where lies, deceit, shadowy conspiracies, doubt and uncertainty are woven in the fabric of the story; when the characters in film noirs uncover the truth, it's usually a dark and unpleasant and sometimes unpalatable truth, and sometimes uncovering that truth comes at great cost to them. John Murdoch in 'Dark City' uncovers the truth only to discover that he has a power to change things, a power he could never have imagined. At the end, when Dr Schreber asks him what he's going to do, Murdoch says "change things - I can do anything I want". There's a cut to Schreber looking slightly concerned and for one moment you realise that Murdoch could be consumed by the power he has; fortunately, his reconstruction of the city is benign.

The Film Connoisseur said...

I also appreciated the last shot of the film. Its no coincidense that its one of the few bright moments in the film, the final moment of illumination, when he finally reaches shell beach, and theres finally a brightness..a clarity in his life.

Love this movie not only for its stylish visuals, but for its symbolisms.

Sorry I took so long to reply Neil! I got caught up in your Herzog posts!