Dark City (1998)

D: Alex Proyas
S: Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly, Kiefer Sutherland

Gripping sci-fi film from Alex Proyas, who, doubling as co-writer, brings all the style and promise shown in The Crow to bear on 'high-concept' material without falling victim to the usual lack of imagination once past the premise. On the contrary, Dark City doesn't finally reveal what is going on until the film has advanced sufficiently to pull you in, a brave step in the age of The Truman Show, where the gag sells the movie and there's nowhere left to go after ten minutes.

Everyman Rufus Sewell wakes to discover a dead woman's body in a dark apartment. He remembers nothing, not even his name. Is he the killer? If so what happened? Why is the body marked in blood with a spiral symbol which has no meaning for him? Why is there a postcard in his pocket for a place that no one seems to know how to get to? Who are the strange, pale men dressed in long black coats and broad-brimmed hats who keep trying to kill him?

The Kafkaesque mystery at the centre of the story revolves around Sewell's gradual discovery that the city is plagued by hostile telepathic aliens (led by a wonderfully creepy Richard O'Brien and a suitably draconian Bruce Spence) and that he is somehow the key to preventing their nefarious plans because he has developed similar powers. An opening voice over spoken by Kiefer Sutherland informs us that we are in the realms of sci-fi, but initially the film looks and feels more like traditional film noir than any genre outing since Blade Runner. The cyberpunk regulars such as flying cars and mega corporations are notably absent. Instead we are presented with a slightly surreal cityscape of perpetual night, filled with dark alleys, haunting subways and denizens decked out in 1940s style clothing (only Anton Furst's designs for Batman have attempted this vein in recent years). It all seems to take place in a Gilliamesque retro/future world, with inexplicable technologies controlled not by cold computers, but very physical vials, syringes, and liquids. Low-angle shots abound, there is a studied grotesquerie to character design which reminds you of Jeunet and Caro, and the strange clicking noises made by the aliens as they prowl echoes Mimic.

Like any postmodern film, Dark City evokes and invokes many others as part of its visual and aural weaponry. It is fast-moving, very rapidly edited and makes liberal use of computer generated imagery. All of these have been ingredients for disaster in the past. Proyas controls it all beautifully though, and is particularly good on when and how to use big special effects scenes. Until the inevitable climax, the pyrotechnics are never excessive. They serve to enhance the surreal tone and advance the plot (as they should), and the film saves its big explosions for the finale. Its referral in texture and tone to preceding cinematic forms is not, in this case, a weakness. The film lacks neither ideas nor imagination (though many of its elements are derived from familiar sources), and it usually has good reason for every twist and turn of plot. The investigative structure of film noir is applied on two fronts, with Sewell plunging through his Kafkaesque labyrinth and policeman William Hurt following the more conventional trail of the killer on the loose which leads him to a place he never expected. Emotional depth is provided by Jennifer Connelly as Sewell's wife, providing context and consequence for the action and upping the stakes when the aliens attempt to use her to get to him. It never allows itself to loose track of where it is going for the sake of a big moment, and though it consistently looks stunning and is loaded with memorable scenes, it holds together and hits home like no other recent sci-fi film.

For some bizarre reason, Dark City went straight to video in this country, and is available only in panned and scanned rental (for the moment). Hopefully with a widescreen VHS or DVD release in the near future, we'll get a chance to see it properly. Until then it is still well worth seeing, though inevitably it will not appeal to everyone. It is still a superb example of intelligent craftsmanship (with a touch of art) and very entertaining, a strongly recommended viewing experience in the age of well marketed mush which still gets to win awards and earn millions of dollars at the box office.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.