Alex Proyas had a story idea about a detective who was attempting to solve a crime in a city where everything would change night to night, and clues would shift. From that nebulous high-concept the ultimate story for Dark City would evolve, one of the great feathers in the cap of scifi fans everywhere, alongside Gattaca, Strange Days, and eXistenZ. Like eXistenZ, and like The Matrix, this is a film adapting the Allegory of the Cave to a modern setting.
That being, some place out of time. Rufus Sewell’s amnesiac character John wakes up in a noir environment, a city that’s plagued by night in a literal way, and must discover the truth to a murder he’s being framed for. He’s helped by Dr. Schreber (played by a pre-Jack Bauer Kiefer), which is handy, because he’s being pursued not only by Detective Bumstead (William Hurt), but a cabal of pale men referred to as the Strangers, who look like Cenobites that looked in the mirror and felt a sting of embarrassment.
The dark city does change, once the clock strikes midnight and everyone falls asleep. The buildings begin to shift, rising or falling, and doors may conjure in brick walls. John navigates this dangerous environment, discovering soon that he shares the Strangers’ power to change the city.
He also discovers his wife, who he doesn’t recall. And you’d remember Jennifer Connelly. I emphasize the actors involved, among them genre veteran Bruce Spence, because it’s one of those rare scifi movies that’s as well cast as an Oscar season drama. Kiefer Sutherland is as far from CTU as he’s ever been, in the twitching and stuttering doctor, but the standout for me is William Hurt, as well as his character.
A thoughtful film will doubtlessly effect high-concept ideas, and when they take the shape of characters, that’s a satisfying meld of idea and drama. Bumstead is a man who plays the role of detective, and wonders why nobody takes him seriously. He may act in an antagonistic capacity, but his eventual understanding of John’s situation (and of the world), and his eventual heroics that spell a disturbing revelation about the city, demonstrates in a subtle and sideline way the human will to find one’s own fate.
It’s a weighty film, but the storytelling this time doesn’t alternate between stunning action with philosophical exposition (ahem, The Matrix, Ghost in the Shell). There’s a frenetic sense to the pacing, and what could’ve easily been a self-indulgent thinker gets its message across in a slick, fun way.
Production design cannot go without mention. This is like the scifi equivalent to the fantasy Streets of Fire, whose city was also a pastiche of different eras. While Dark City is primarily 40s, the iconography is diverse enough to confuse — where is this city? When does it take place? Like with The Matrix, seemingly disparate elements, like horror and noir, or telekinesis and aliens, come together in a streamlined art style that’s confident and highly appealing.
There’s a scene where a man commits suicide by falling before an oncoming train, and the reason for his death is just as chilling as the act itself. While not an overly brutal film, spiral cuts in dead women’s bodies for example make for a frank and uncommon portrayal of a scifi reality. It’s a scifi/drama with a mild horror edge, and while balancing multiple genres can be tricky for even some veterans, for an early Alex Proyas, it was a singular miracle that made for one of the most thoughtful, disturbing, and moving scifi films of the 90s.