A fusion of “The Crow” and Kafka, “Dark City” trades in such weighty themes as memory, thought control, human will and the altering of reality, but is engaging mostly in the degree to which it creates and sustains a visually startling alternate universe. Although not based on a comic book, Alex Proyas’ second feature repeats, to an almost alarming extent, notions and motifs from his debut outing with “The Crow,” and his aiming for grander ideas adds a veneer of pretension that proves not all that edifying. But his skill as a visually gifted director remains unquestioned, and New Line should rack up decent coin based on strong support from the hard-core sci-fi/fantasy audience.
This is essentially an old film noir amnesiac yarn, set in a hostile urban environment defined by late ’40s noir (“Dark City” could easily have served as the title for just about any noir ever made). But tale is shot through with a futuristic element that vastly increases the visual opportunities beyond dark shadows on slick city streets.
Very appropriately for a picture about a desperate search through a labyrinth of time, memory and sinister manipulation, it takes a while for viewers to get their bearings. What is clear is that the Strangers, lean, bald, vampirelike men who dress in wide-brimmed hats and floor-length black coats and possess the ability to transform reality to their own purposes, have come to Earth to find a cure for their accursed mortality. So advanced are they that they can, through a process known as Tuning, will the world to a complete standstill, and can change the shape, size and very essence of material objects.
What is less clear is what any of this has to do with John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), a young man who, after a break with his wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly), awakens in a hotel room with his memory gone and under suspicion in a series of murders. Lamenting, in classic cliched noir fashion, that “I feel like I’m living out someone else’s nightmare,” Murdoch attracts the attention of a clearly demented genius doctor, Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), as well as a curiously sympathetic inspector, Frank Bumstead (William Hurt). Separately, they help Murdoch steer clear of the Strangers, who feel that the panicked gent somehow holds the key to their salvation.
Structured by story originator Proyas and his co-scenarists Lem Dobbs (“Kafka”) and David S. Goyer (“The Crow: City of Angels”) like a detective mystery, pic nonetheless quickly comes to resemble Kafka’s “The Trial,” with its beleaguered protagonist accused of crimes he professes no knowledge of, and a monolithic group of imposing adversaries clearly bent upon reeling him in for malevolent reasons of their own.
As Murdoch and the tale twist and turn through countless dark corners and alleys, it appears that the ominous Strangers have a collective memory, and that Murdoch has been robbed of his in order to help the Strangers try to unlock the key to the human soul.
How all this is supposed to happen remains as intricate as it is obscure, but by the final third the emphasis is on big set pieces anyway, one set on the literal edge of the world and beyond, and another located in the spectacular lair of the Strangers, a “Metropolis”-like underworld where through the excruciating transformation of mental power into physical force, Murdoch and the Strangers’ chieftain (Ian Richardson) each tries to emerge via the triumph of the will.
Along the way, Murdoch tries to patch together scraps of personal memory, mainly to figure out what happened between him and his wife. Unfortunately, the structural impression is that of a plot grid more than of a deepening story, and the principal impression of the characters, including the lead, is one of thorough weirdness rather than anything truly comprehensible.
So even if Proyas and his collaborators intended to add some intellectual meat to a one-dimensional form, they haven’t been able to provide anything extra in the areas of characterization, nuance, originality or complexity. What they have done is taken a few second-hand ideas from noir and speculative fiction and mixed them in occasionally striking ways, even if, in the end, the result isn’t all that much fun.
Visually, there is a great deal going on. Once you get over the startling resemblance of the threatening, perennially nocturnal city to the setting of “The Crow,” the differences start asserting themselves. Entirely created in the new Fox Film Studios in Sydney, the eponymous metropolis rendered with great imagination by production designers George Liddle and Patrick Tatopolous has the general feel and even the specific street sign style of ’40s New York, with Liz Keogh’s costume designs generally fitting that era as well. But the cars sometimes belong to more modern times, the low ceilings and cramped rooms evoke German Expressionism, and the superhuman powers of the Strangers endow everything with futuristic possibilities.
Within the deterministic framework of the piece, performances are solid. The distinctively handsome Sewell is mainly obliged to express the desperate bewilderment and determination of a paranoid victim, and does so better than many others have done with similarly circumscribed roles. As the detective, Hurt fits with great ease into the attitude and look of the picture, while Sutherland has some fun with what can only be called the Peter Lorre role. Connelly fills the bill as the wife with whom the beleaguered hero tries to reconnect, and Richard O’Brien and Ian Richardson are the most prominent of the memorably fashioned Strangers.
Design and technology rep the film’s strongest suit, so even when the story becomes too murky, there is generally something lively going on visually to hold the interest. Trevor Jones’ score works overtime, scarcely letting up for a moment.