×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Dark City

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.

With:
John Murdoch - Rufus Sewell Dr. Daniel Schreber - Kiefer Sutherland Emma Murdoch - Jennifer Connelly Inspector Frank Bumstead -William Hurt Mr. Hand - Richard O'Brien Mr. Book - Ian Richardson Walenski - Colin Friels Husselbeck - Mitchell Butel Stromboli - Frank Gallacher Mr. Wall - Bruce Spence May - Mellisa George Karl Harris - John Bluthal

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.

Dark City

Production: A New Line Cinema release of a Mystery Clock production. Produced by Andrew Mason, Alex Proyas. Executive producers, Michael De Luca, Brian Witten. Directed by Alex Proyas. Screenplay, Proyas, Lem Dobbs, David S. Goyer, story by Proyas.

With: John Murdoch - Rufus Sewell Dr. Daniel Schreber - Kiefer Sutherland Emma Murdoch - Jennifer Connelly Inspector Frank Bumstead -William Hurt Mr. Hand - Richard O'Brien Mr. Book - Ian Richardson Walenski - Colin Friels Husselbeck - Mitchell Butel Stromboli - Frank Gallacher Mr. Wall - Bruce Spence May - Mellisa George Karl Harris - John BluthalCamera (Atlab color, Deluxe prints; Panavision widescreen), Dariusz Wolski; editor, Dov Hoenig; music, Trevor Jones; production design, George Liddle, Patrick Tatopolous; art direction, Michelle McGahey, Richard Hobbs; set design, Axel Bartz, Jenny Carseldine, Judith Harvey, Sarah Light; costume design, Liz Keogh; sound (Dolby/SDDS), David Lee; visual effects supervisors and producers, Mara Bryan, Arthur Windus, Andrew Mason; visual effects director, Bruce Hunt; digital visual effects, DFILM Services; stunt coordinator, Glenn Boswell; line producer, Barbara Gibbs; assistant director, Steve Andrews; second unit director, Topher Dow; second unit camera, Richard Michalak; casting, Valerie McCaffrey, Shauna Wolifson, Vanessa Pereira. Reviewed at New Line Cinema screening room, L.A., Feb. 3, 1998. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 101 MIN.

More Film

  • Steven Gaydos, Jacob Weydemann, Katriel Schory,

    Variety Celebrates 10 Producers to Watch in Cannes

    CANNES–Variety honored its 10 Producers to Watch for 2019 at a brunch on Monday morning at Cannes’ Plage des Palmes. Launched at the Cannes Film Festival in 1998, the annual event fetes 10 producers from the U.S. and the international film community who share a common commitment to bold, original, provocative storytelling. The films produced by [...]

  • Cannes Placeholder Red Carpet

    Cannes: KKR and Atwater to Launch Library Pictures, Boost Local-Language Film

    Local-language film making is to get a fillip through the launch of Library Pictures international. The company is backed by a consortium of investors led by media investment firm Atwater Capital and a newly formed Germany-based media company established by KKR. The new firm is intended as a content financing entity to support industry-leading filmmakers [...]

  • After21_0020.ARW

    Sequel to Independent Movie Hit 'After' Launches in Cannes

    “After,” the highest grossing independent film of the year so far, is set to return with a sequel, with stars Josephine Langford and Hero Fiennes Tiffin reprising their roles. Voltage Pictures is selling the new pic in Cannes. The first film, which had a reported production budget of $14 million, grossed more than $50 million [...]

  • Liam Gallagher and Son shopping at

    Cannes: Screen Media Buys 'Liam Gallagher: As It Was' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Screen Media has acquired North American rights to Charlie Lightening and Gavin Fitzgerald’s feature documentary “Liam Gallagher: As It Was.” The film follows the former Oasis frontman as he finds himself on the periphery of the rock ‘n’ roll world after years spent at the white hot center of the music world. Screen Media will [...]

  • La Casa de Papel Netflix

    Madrid Region Booms as an International Production Hub

    Madrid is booming as never before in its 125-year film history; arguably, no other European site is currently transforming so quickly into a global production hub. A 20-minute drive north of the Spanish capital, a large white-concrete hanger has been built beside the Madrid-Burgos motorway, at the entrance to Tres Cantos, a well-heeled satellite village and industrial [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content