The Wednesday Review: Dark City (1998)
Rufus Sewell – John Murdoch
William Hurt – Inspector Frank Bumstead
Kiefer Sutherland – Dr. Daniel P. Schreber
Jennifer Connelly – Emma Murdoch / Anna
Richard O’Brien – Mr. Hand
Directed by Alex Proyas
Let us take a short trip back some twelve years to 1999 and remember films of this time that really stand out. The first movie you may think of would be The Matrix which was such a huge financial, critical and cultural hit that it spawned a massive franchise of a mostly excellent series of shorts, some bad to average video games and two absolutely wretched sequels that did nothing but pretentiously waste your time and money.
I mention The Matrix not because it is the focus of this review but largely because it was the movie that overshadowed the fantastically made Dark City that not only came out just before the Matrix in 1998 but also also lent its sets to the people making The Matrix.
Dark City was largely overshadowed due to it being, in a manner, a similar movie but lacking the modern style of an action movie. In fact whereas the Matrix merely utilised old film noir styles, Dark City relished in them and designed the entire movie in a 1940’s art deco style that is frankly completely gorgeous. The visual effects in this movie are made all the better considering this was still the time before computers dominated the effects field. The effects bring the dreamlike world to life.
The basic premise of the story is John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awake in a bathtub in a run down hotel and cannot for the life of him remember anything about his past, not even his name. Upon dressing in what appear to be brand new clothes he receives a call from Dr Screbeer (Played by Sutherland) who explains that his memories are gone and that he must talk with him face to face but he must hurry as he is being followed. Murdoch discovers a murdered prostitute lying next to the bed and runs, narrowly avoiding a group of darkly dressed men who are very interested in the crime scene.
Murdoch must now discover his identity, his family, who these strange men are and why everyone suddenly falls asleep at 12am every night..
This is about the most plot I am willing to give away in this review as I very much recommend you seeing it on your own terms and discovering the intricacies of the plot for yourselves. Dark City however is not a straight up mystery and is very much cemented in the sci fi genre. It deals with aspect of what is reality and who or what is actually controlling your destiny and identity. These themes are very similar to what is found in The Matrix but the execution is very different and just as satisfying.
I must point out that if you are going to watch this film it is important to watch the directors cut, or failing that mute the sound up until the title appears, for the studio included narration from Sutherland ruins the majority of the plot reveals and their exclusion brings the audience much closer to the confusion and desperation of the protagonist. You follow his journey with as much clue and idea as he and you both learn the realities of his world together.
Dark City was also written and directed by Australian director Alex Proyas who is also well known for The Crow and you can certainly see his visual style within the movie. It is unquestionably a film noir inspired setting, with the sharply shadowed streets and fedora wearing detectives. I must also give a lot of praise for constructing a script that lends itself perfectly for creating a character that is a great audience guide. Murdoch is literally in the dark as much as the audience and every element of the script allows exposition to flow naturally. As fast paces as the film is it never skips over anything of importance and never leaves you feeling bewildered.
I would very much recommend Dark City to anyone who enjoys mystery and/or science fiction movies. It may not be an out and out action movie like The Matrix but it most certainly will never leave you bored.
Rating: Four fish in bathtubs out of five.