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Film Review: Dark City

Title: Dark City

Director(s): Alex Proyas

Screenwriter(s): Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs & David S. Goyer

Studio: Mystery Clock Cinema Released: 1998

Runtime: 1h 40m

Starring: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, Richard O’Brien, Ian Richardson and William Hurt

Dark City is a modern classic sci-fi/fantasy film worthy of thought and study. The audience is immediately introduced to the shadowy scenario: there is an experiment being run on unaware humans, carried out by mysterious alien beings called “The Strangers” who have the ability to alter physical reality by will. This ability is known as “Tuning”. The Strangers are a dying race that is trying to extend their lives by examining the human species.

Dark City

The action begins as a man (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a bathroom of a hotel, confused and suffering from amnesia. He also finds the body of a streetwalker in his hotel room. The phone rings and Dr Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) is on the other end who informs him that there are men after him. Disorientated and horrified, the man flees, trying to escape his pursuers. He later finds that his name is John Murdoch and that he is wanted for the murders of five other streetwalkers. We are also introduced to a young woman, a singer by the name of Emma Murdoch (Jennifer Connelly), who is apparently John’s wife. She is then also contacted by Dr Schreber. John in the meantime tries to find out who he really is as he begins his stumbling journey through the Dark City…

Rufus Sewell compellingly plays John Murdoch, skillfully dealing with the different facets of his character. Whilst confused and disorientated, he is clearly not stupid and has the determination to survive and to unravel the mystery surrounding himself. He is disturbed as expected given the circumstances and one cannot predict exactly what he might do. Is he simply trying to save himself? What would he do to those who are after him? Will he become “a monster”?

Jennifer Connelly plays Emma Murdoch in an almost straightforward fashion, gentle and melancholic. Strangely though, she does not seem as bewildered about the situation as one might predict. Perhaps this in itself is a clue to the mystery… And although she does effuse an air of helplessness, she is not passive. She takes action when she can, trying to find answers and to help her husband. Connelly portrays her character well; no doubt her melancholic look fits this type of character. Veteran Richard O’Brien plays Mr Hand, a strong-willed and creepy Stranger (even among his peers), a genuinely frightening combination. One can argue he overacts it a little but it is undoubtedly deliberate and tastefully done since the role demands it.

Kiefer Sutherland is Dr Schreber, a doctor with some physical ailments but a brilliant mind. Given Sutherland’s past roles as physically capable individuals, particularly Jack Bauer in 24, it is strange to see him as the physically handicapped doctor who shows signs of fear and panic. But as expected from an actor like Sutherland, his performance is convincing. Sutherland really does persuasively display the emotional pain that stems from his character’s awkward situation: what he has suffered thus far, his fear of his plan failing and what nightmare awaits him. To give the story some balance, there is the bystander Inspector Frank Bumstead played by William Hurt, in essence the “skeptical but open-minded cop” trope. Initially, he is only trying to track down John Murdoch as a murder suspect. Hurt portrays the serious but kind individual simply, showing that he is unbiased, fair and willing to follow the evidence in order to find the truth even if it seems strange.

The cinematography by Dariusz Wolski (Crimson Tide, The Crow) and film editing by Dov Hoenig (The Fugitive, The Crow) are interesting to say the least. Obviously, the film is literally dark and not overtly colorful. However, the lighting is hard and strategically scarce to give contrast and in turn depth. The camera work is intriguing. There is no one technique that is relied on, a variety of shots is employed and whatever is needed in that scene or moment is done. Cutting from a very tight to a wide shot is used often, obviously to play with the audience’s perception. Many shots do take advantage of perspective, such as looking up from the floor to the ceiling or down a hallway. I think it’s the composition of each shot (and the cutting between these) that conveys the surrealness: the apparent stillness of each frame (regardless of camera movement) and the position of the object in relation to all the other elements give a sense of order and balance, an order so strong that it suggests the opposite, that something or possibly everything is out of place.

The visual effects are very well executed, the city reminiscent of what is seen in The Crow. The buildings twisting and morphing during each tuning is superbly done and, of no less importance, not overdone. The design of the buildings and costumes have that grim and dirty industrial feel, setting a dark mood that is intrinsic to the nature of the story.

Music composed by Trevor Jones (Labyrinth) is functional as it should. The use of strings, brass and percussion (effects) in short themes add to the excitement in action sequences or to the eerie nature of the quieter suspenseful scenes. The use of disjointed strings and the repetition of short crescendo bursts augment the drama. Whilst the score is in many ways typical, it fits and it works.

Even for those who are not fans of sci-fi, Dark City should be a captivating and absorbing film. The mystery is gripping, the acting is strong and it is visually mesmerizing. The narrative is well-structured, the expositions flowing quickly. Whilst it is not the first film to deal with the human mind or soul—and arguably not as overtly as some—it is nonetheless thought-provoking. Is the soul a reality? If so, then what is it? Are we, as Dr Schreber points out, “the mere sum of our memories and experiences”? If not, then what else is there? And just as importantly, where does it come from? What is our purpose, even when stuck in an environment controlled by dark forces? Whilst Dark City does not necessarily directly pose or answer all these questions, it explores them and does point in a certain direction.


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