Cult Classic: Dark City

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: Masterful film noir and philosophical sci-fi.  It’s a worthy film.

Review: ‘Dark City’, released in 1998 but only recently rediscovered by popular geekdom, is a great example of a hidden gem. Very similar to ‘The Matrix’, which came out the next year, it hardly made a splash in its initial run, partly due to the ‘Blade Runner’ treatment; that is, the studio was afraid that audiences wouldn’t get it, so they gave it unnecessary narration and cut it badly. Even then, it got some critical acclaim, and thankfully we can now experience Alex Proyas’ original vision in a Director’s Cut on video. This is the version of the film I have seen, and will now review.

This is a film noir, richly drawn, with postmodernist touches and science fiction mysticism.  The film reeks of mystery and horror, both visceral and existential.  The people of the City live in perpetual darkness, physically, mentally and spiritually.  They are kept “blind” by a Nosferatu-like race called The Strangers, who are out to discover from their subjects the secret of the human soul.  Only a few people put the pieces of the puzzle together.  Some are caught, others destroy themselves in despair, but one has an advantage the others don’t.  This is John Murdoch, played by the excellent Rufus Sewell, and he’s a man with a few fragments of memory.  Thanks to the Director’s Cut removal of the studio mandated narration, we are also in the dark, putting the pieces together with Murdoch as he encounters one bizarre truth at a time.

The composition is classic, each shot deep and beautifully detailed, almost Wellesian, lit sometimes unconventionally, in a way that complements production designer Patrick Tatopoulos’ work.  Its look and feel harkens back to another era, a time when more care was put into mise-en-scene and the grandeur of a great shot that can look like a painting.  The Strangers’ machinery strongly evokes Fritz Lang, the streets evoke John Houston, and the science fiction and fantastic action owes a great deal to Japanese manga and anime.

Philosophically, the film blends the age-old drama of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave with questions about the relationship between memory and identity.  The Strangers toy with their subject’s memories to see if it changes who they are.  Are we the sum of our experiences, or something more?  The film seems to indicate that our memories do shape us, but we still have the choice, upon self-revelation, to change who we are and to change our worlds as well.  Proyas subtly references Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ by way of Murdoch, who concludes, “You wanted to know what it was about us that made us human.  Well, you’re not going to find it… (He points to his head) in here.  You were looking in the wrong place.”

‘Dark City’ is one of my favorite films.  It has familiar themes, but remarkable execution.

Buy It From Amazon: Dark City (Director’s Cut) [Blu-ray]

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