Welcome to this week's slightly late Sci-Fi Squad Movie Club Discussion of Dark City. If you took two hours out of your dull and tedious life to experience this remarkable film, I hope you'll participate in the discussion below. If you've seen it before, you're a good person with good taste and I hope you will participate in the discussion below as well. If you haven't seen it...why not? Spoilers ahead.
Good Excuses For Style
"First there was darkness. Then came The Strangers."
Dark City is the story of an amnesiac on the run, trying to rediscover his identity and prove that he is not a murderer. It is also the story of alien abduction, dead hookers, creepy experimentation, telekinesis and alien squids living inside of reanimated human corpses. It is a story about memory and how our experiences define us, how love can transcend said memories and how these memories may or may not be the reason we have a soul.
This is a busy movie. It squeezes more energy and excitement and thought into one of its brisk 111 minutes than most movies can in their entire duration. Every time I watch Dark City, I'm overcome by all of the little details and clues director Alex Proyas leaves the audience.
It is appropriate that such a busy film has such a busy visual style. "Busy" sounds too negative. "Vibrant," maybe? The city looks like 1940s noir and 1920s German Expressionism got put in a blender with Tim Burton's Batman, resulting in nightmarish world of shadows and streetlights, towering monoliths and run-down apartment complexes. The streets are always wet. And the sun is never out.
Okay, let's face it: this looks cool. So many movies, though, look cool. It's another thing altogether for that stylization to have a real purpose, to serve the story in a genuine way. When we get the late reveal that the entire city is a spaceship constructed by an alien race called The Strangers (warned ya 'bout them spoilers!), all that we've seen makes sense. If an alien race used human memories to approximate a human city, what would they get? People rarely think in realism. One of our species' gifts is our imagination and are memories are always a little different, a little stranger, a little more exaggerated than reality.
We remember things cinematically. This is not just a series of cool sets that pay homage to various famous films and film genres. This is an approximation of a CITY, the city we all see in the movies, the city of our dreams and nightmares.
Or The Strangers just really, really liked Metropolis and The Cabinet or Dr. Caligari. Maybe so. After all, they all look like Count Orlok from Nosferatu.
We Got a Genre-Shifter Here!
"These do bring back memories. This one is still warm. What is it? The recollections of a great lover? A catalog of conquests? We will soon find out....Let's see, a touch of unhappy childhood, a dash of teenage rebellion, and last but not least, a tragic death in the family."
It's appropriate that the city looks like a mash-up of movie genres, since the film itself is not content to idly sit in one genre, choosing instead to jump wherever it sees fit. Sure, you'll find Dark City in the Science Fiction section of your local movie rental store, but it has film noir pumping through its veins. It's also incredibly, if somewhat simplistically, romantic, filled with one-of-a-kind action sequences and has its fair share of scares (if you watched the director's cut, you may have actually thought you were watching a straight-up horror film until pretty late in the run time).
Okay, so Dark City is easily in my top ten films of all time, so you're not going to hear much negativity from me, but I do recall finding my first viewing a little overwhelming. It's rare for a film to try anything new, so when a film is trying to make everything new, the experience is a little like getting drunk: interesting for sure, but good God, my head hurts. Multiple viewings have taught me to deal with Dark City's genre jumping, but I can imagine a lot of people, particularly those not willing to suspend their disbelief, to find the experience unpleasant.
I've actually yet to meet someone who didn't enjoy this movie. Hoping to meet one. Someday.
A Wild Ride
"Do you know the way to Shell Beach?"
For such a dense, detailed movie, Dark City's storytelling is economic and the pacing brisk. I don't think the first half hour or so of the movie actually ever "stops." We are constantly on the move, new characters are being introduced, people are being pursued, heads are being sliced open by motor-operated billboards and so forth. It's a fantastic first act that works because of the score and the sound editing. The music rarely takes a breath and when it does, the creepy and surreal sound design takes over, making the first chunk of the film feel like one long extended sequence rather than the movie slowly putting all of its pieces in place.
This pace does slow down when it needs to, particularly in the second half, when mysteries are being solved left and right and we need to find our bearings. However, things always kick back into gear when they need to, keeping the film from ever slowing down and breezing through a scene or two (or three) which desperately need a dialogue rewrite.
I think Dark City's stylistic fingerprints can be felt all over the late '90s and early '00s, namely in The Matrix and Memento, two films that couldn't be more different. Nothing obvious, just little touches like The Matrix's production design and Memento's use of flashbacks and breakneck pace.
What the Heck is Kiefer Sutherland Doing?
Really. Or maybe who is he doing? In my original Movie Club post, I said that he was doing Peter Lorre. After my most recent re-watch, I've decided that's not the case. There is something familiar about the performance, though. He feels like a studio character actor from the 1930s, ripped from his time and put in this movie. Wheezing and meek, this is a far cry from Jack Bauer and I like it and hope he goes back to doing strange roles like this when 24 finally ends.
As our protagonist, John Murdoch, Rufus Sewell plays a bit of a cypher, a character who represents base humanity, but he does as much as he can with the role. We're always on his side. As his wife, the lovely Jennifer Connelly is a little underwritten, but her main job seems to be to look really, really good and well, it works.
Personally, my favorite character is Inspector Bumstead, played with humor and intelligence by William Hurt. It's your classic film noir investigator role: tough, smart and cynical but not without a sense of humor. He also plays the accordion. I would watch an entire movie titled The Adventures of Inspector Frank Bumstead.
So we have a movie that is actually trying to make a point about the human condition. An important, potentially pretentious subject that is usually found in important, potentially pretentious films. How does Dark City manage to deal with this while being one of the geekiest movies ever made?
I think a lot it as to do with just how earnest the whole production is. There is not a single ironic or cynical bone in the skeleton of Dark City. It may be drawing a lot of inspiration from other films, but it is not living fearfully in their shadows. It has a point it wants to make and it's going to make it without apologizing or asking if you've heard this before.
Genre filmmaking has gotten so cynical in the past decade that it's incredibly refreshing to see a "dark" genre film actually have a happy ending and reach a positive thematic conclusion. Dark City ends with Murdoch meeting his wife, who has had her memory wiped, and falling in love again, their feelings for each other having transcended alien mind erasure. When the credits have rolled, Murdoch has killed the bad guys, saved the city and proven the human soul lies not in the head, but in the heart (awww). The film asks "What are we without our memories?" The answer is "We are human beings. And we are essentially good."
But we come to this conclusion following a mid-air telekinesis battle where half of the city is destroyed in a delightfully apocalyptic fashion. Dark City has its cake and eats it too. Why can't you have thought-provoking themes about the nature of humanity and a fight scene on top of a cityscape that is constantly shifting due to psychic alien machinery?
See why I love this movie?
Director's Cut and Original Ending: Few Dodged Bullets
"I have become the monster you were intended to be."
If this was your first time watching Dark City, I hope you watched the director's cut. If you've seen it before, you know which version to revisit. The theatrical release tells you who The Strangers are in an opening narration, information that is, nearly word-for-word, repeated at a more appropriate point much later in the film. It's redundant, it's stupid and it gives away the chief mystery of the movie in the opening thirty seconds. This was apparently a studio demand, which gives you further ammunition if you ever want to accuse movie studios of being moronic and thinking that their audience is made up entirely of morons. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Speaking of things that are stupid, stupid, stupid, the original ending involved Murdoch meeting his wife and murdering her because "he was a killer all along." I direct you to the third paragraph under "Visionary...Yet Geeky?" Talk about dodging a bullet.
I took a few pages of notes while preparing to write this. I think I'm going to quote directly from that:
"The scene where Murdoch uses his psychic abilities to re-direct the spaceship toward the sun so the city is bathed in sunlight for the first time is oddly beautiful."
Dark City allowed me to write that sentence. I think it's the only movie in existence that would allow me to do so.
"You think about the past much, Frank?"
"As much as the next guy."