Alex Proyas’ Dark City has been left lurking in the shadows as the unwelcome older brother of the Wachowski’s definitive high-concept sci-fi action movie, The Matrix. A truly visionary movie, fourteen years on from it’s initial release date, it stand the test of time as one of the best forays into technological dystopia since Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, even if the film is almost entirely unoriginal.
The titular city is an anachronistic metropolis that instantly wreaks of Tim Burton’s Gotham in the early Batman movies. Dark City never sees daylight, and is populated by citizens who are brought to collective unconscious when the clock strikes midnight every evening. One of the more curious inhabitants is John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), who wakes up soaking in a hotel room bathtub with no memory of who he is or how he got there after a scientific experiment gone wrong. He gets a call from the exasperated psychiatrist Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) urging John to put on some clothes and get the hell out of there before ‘The Strangers’ (a klan of of ghostly figures (led by the perfectly cast Richard O’Brien) hunt him down.
Stumbling through the skyscraper city trying to piece together the remnants of his life, he realises that he is man on the run not only from these omniscient overlords, but his estranged wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) and the grizzled Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt) who believe him to be a murderer. Desperate to prove his innocence for the sake of the law, and to remember his own shady identity, things turn even more beguiling for John when ‘The Strangers’ reveal themselves to be intergalactic spirits manipulating the lives of the city dwellers whilst they sleep, and he is the only person in the universe who has the power to stop them.
Clocking in at 100 minutes, it’s remarkable how much thematic bulk director/co-writer/producer Alex Proyas is able to cram into Dark City. Even more extraordinary is his ability for it all to coalesce so well. Hurt is appropriately austere as the unflinching gumshoe detective from another time period, Connelly oozes with femme fatale sex appeal as a lounge bar singer led astray, Sewell plays the mystery man with refreshing, Kafka-esque existential crisis and, best of all, Richard O’Brien is so fervently eerie as the dark visitor haunting his shrouded memories. If there’s any weak link amongst the acting calibre, it’s Sutherland’s turn as a jittery scientist, so overwhelmed by his intelligence that he is unable to string a coherent sentence together.
For all it’s masterful cinematography from Dariusz Wolski (the same man behind the photography of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus [it really does show too!]), plus the brilliant, electro-orchestral fusion score from Trevor Jones, Alex Proyas’ Dark City is built on well-worn pastiches. Aside from the coincidental atmospheric likeness to The Matrix, there’s the hypnagogic absurdity of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the autonomous footworkers familiar in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (plus a big face in the architecture too). Thrown in next is the threats of capitalism akin to Alan Moore’s graphic novel series Watchmen, and lastly the hardboiled detective and chiaroscuro city streets, both derivative of just about every decent film noir, from Hitchcock’s Rebecca to the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple. Lacking the visual ingenuity of his über-violent predecessor The Crow (one of my favourite action movies ever), I couldn’t help but be constantly gripped and excited by Proyas’ fantastical bric-a-brac world.
Even with some undernourished plot twists, it’s sci-fi filmmaking at it’s bodacious best. Yes – alternate worlds, alien overlords and Kiefer Sutherland are ridiculous things, but if you take a visit to Alex Proyas’ Dark City, you’ll never want to leave.