The first thing you've got to understand is that this ain't Blade Runner, though at first its gloomy urban landscape does look a lot like Ridley Scott's vision of Philip K. Dick's work. But Alex Proyas' Dark City doesn't even try to be a realistic noir thriller transplanted into an all-too-plausible future of corporate domination and biological slavery. It is instead a non-linear (some of its critics have called it "choppy") excursion into a fantastic nightmare.
From its constricted beginning, when John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakens in the cold, bloody water of a hotel bathtub with a murdered call girl in the next room and no memory of how he got there, the disturbing place that is the Dark City is revealed to us only in glimpses, flashes of events that seem subtly off-kilter. The time period is unstable, seeming to partake of World War II-era austerity (is the city suffering a blackout?) but occasional elements appear from more recent decades as well. And things don't even remain consistent from day to day.
Every night at midnight, the entire Dark City sleeps... and is "tuned." Buildings corkscrew themselves from the ground and city blocks warp to accommodate them. Everyone sleeps, and when they awaken they accept the changes without noticing, for they have been tuned as well.
The nightmarish instability of Murdoch's environment is presented seamlessly, and we feel it along with him as he becomes more and more frightened, wondering if he's losing his sanity as the people chasing him insist that he has. Because everyone in the Dark City sleeps... except John Murdoch. We see the changes through his eyes, changes no one else remembers...
The acting is uneven, it must be admitted. Rufus Sewell is believably bewildered at first as John Murdoch, but his naivete soon seems overdone. Murdoch quickly finds himself scrambling to recover his past while dodging both the police (William Hurt plays the amusingly named Inspector Frank Bumstead with his usual aplomb) and the mysterious Strangers. Somehow, though, Murdoch always manages to pull out the right trick at the right time despite his confusion.
As lip-synching torch singer and Murdoch's loving wife Emma, the talents of Jennifer Connelly receive far less exposure here than they did in Mulholland Falls, but she is still a decorative part of the film. And seeing Richard O'Brien (old friend Riff Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show) again as Mr. Hand was a macabre treat.
Kiefer Sutherland probably turns in the worst performance of the bunch, as the mad Doctor Daniel Poe Schreber, with an unconvincing, over-the-top bit of acting most accurately compared to a bad Peter Lorre impression.
But the mediocre performances and the occasional cliché (a moment that had me groaning out loud comes when the mad Doctor - himself a cliché - makes a transparent effort to stay behind while Murdoch and Inspector Bumstead go into danger, and gets dragged along anyway) are really minor elements of Dark City. What really shine in this movie are its plot, only a fraction of which I've outlined above, and its special effects. If you're willing to forgive a little, you can get back a lot out of this film.
This review was originally composed 10/29/1999, with valuable assistance from the Internet Movie Database.
©2003 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.
Last updated April 2, 2003.