Dark City

Back in Black

Well, you can’t accuse them of using an inaccurate title. Director Alex Proyas’ follow-up to his tremendously successful The Crow is set in a city where there’s never daylight, yet nobody ever notices the lack of sunlight.

Proyas and company have crafted one of the darkest visions ever put on film – a grand guignol science fiction gothic film noir mystery thriller. It borrows chunks from early German expressionist favorites (M, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis), and 1940s crime movies (The Big Sleep, Detour, Spellbound), as well as the more recent sci-fi films that homage the same sources (1984, Bladerunner, Brazil).

John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell from Cold Comfort Farm) wakes up in a hotel room with a murdered prostitute, a case of amnesia, and telekinetic mental powers. Is he the ripper stalking the dark city streets? Police Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt) thinks so, and is hot on the trail – despite the fact that his predecessor on the case went mad chasing esoteric details brought out by his investigation. Will Murdoch’s wife (Jennifer Connelly, who nailed my heart previously with Phenomenon and The Rocketeer) help him or betray him? Why can’t anyone find the way to Shell Beach? How is the sinister Dr. Schreber (Keifer Sutherland) connected to the case?

The answers lie with a race of aliens in barely human guise. Proyas creates a dense atmosphere of nervous paranoia that builds in the first third of the film, reels around drunkenly in the second, then leaps way over the top in the finale.   This film might have been a masterpiece, except for a few deadly flaws in the intricate plot. I can’t explain how Proyas, Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer wrote themselves into a corner without a little SPOILER WARNING. For one thing, once I found out who all the characters really are, I immediately lost interest in them. Secondly, I find it difficult to understand why the aliens can take human bodies and alter inanimate matter, yet they all look like Count Orlock from Nosferatu. And third, since the aliens’ plot involves switching the memories of everyone in the city around, why isn’t it obvious to everyone? I mean, it’s one thing to give a guy a new set of memories so he thinks he’s a cop instead of a barber, but why don’t the other cops know the difference? What about the barber’s friends, family and customers – don’t they wonder where he’s gone?

Dark City has a fascinating premise, wonderful art direction and f/x, and plenty of creepy atmosphere going for it. The performances are good, despite the fact that they are purposely archetypal. It’s unfortunate that Proyas’ reach is so far beyond his grasp. Here’s hoping he can put all the pieces together next time, because I definitely like his style.

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