*Note as of 07/10/12* - Click here to read my more up to date review of Dark City on Commentary Track.
A little over 10 years ago I watched Dark City in the theatres, for the first time and I distinctly remember being absolutely blown away. The cinematography is breathtaking: the olden buildings, the elevated streamlined trains flying over pedestrians’ heads, the '30s, '40s, and '50s noirish shadows and Dutch angles, and, of course the feeling of a more contemporary version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926). This city also reminds me of the one depicted within Blade Runner (1982), but, ironically has a bit more life to it. It has less of the hustle and bustle of an overpopulated megapolis and the atmosphere of a properly captured forgotten moment in time.
Dark City tells a detective story, a story of identity and finding oneself, a classical science fiction tale, and somewhere in its center lies a love story. John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) suffers from lack of memories and tries to piece his past together, but nothing seems to connect because whatever memories are still in his mind are not real (more on that soon). Emma Murdoch (Jennifer Connelly) is John's wife, who finds it hard to believe when John's doctor, Doctor Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), tells her that John's suffered from a psychotic break and complete memory loss.
John finds in his overcoat pockets newspaper clippings that suggest he is a serial killer, and inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) is on his case. Bumstead follows leads and ends up nowhere. In fact, he ends up further away from the truth and so do Emma and John.
To add to Bumstead’s case running in circles, I am reminded of an early scene in the film where John awakens and emerges naked from a bathtub. He then, accidentally knocks over a fishbowl. He picks up the fish and places it in water in the bathtub. Later, when Bumstead inspects Murdoch's apartment, he asks a fellow police officer: "What kind of a killer stops to save a dying fish?" Inspector Bumstead is tired but alert and he was on the beat for a long time, but still plays by the rules.
On the other side of the spectrum, Dr. Schreber is more of a Nazi-type scientist who simply follows orders. Equipped with blond, parted hair and round metal-framed spectacles, a crooked eye, and a limp, he does everything that he is told to do by The Strangers.
The Strangers are a race of aliens that had come down a long time ago and began to experiment with human test subjects. We learn that their race is dying and that they want to study human beings to find out what makes them tick. To that end, they borrow human corpses and use them as vessels. The Strangers look very pale. They have an affinity to strappy leather clothing and they wear overcoats and fedoras outdoors just like we do. They're kind of like vampires with their leather fetish and sensitivity to sunlight, but there is nothing erotic or exotic about them. They also have the ability to "tune", which is a form of telekinesis; it allows them to fly in between buildings, create non-existent doorways within brick walls and even push people back without laying a finger. The Strangers have found out that John Murdoch has the same abilities they do, and they are terribly worried about it.
The city literally changes shape every time the clock strikes twelve and every human citizen mysteriously falls asleep: everyone, but John. He wanders around the dark city and watches as buildings erect from the ground up and some others simply disappear back into it. Some buildings even slide horizontally across the streets and merge with other buildings. In one incident John Murdoch was on a fire escape and noticed another building sliding towards him. His coat has caught on the corner of the fire escape and he managed to free himself at the last second and enter the building before being crushed.
Upon the citizens falling asleep, The Strangers invade their homes and change their identities. Dr. Schreber injects new memories into the subject's foreheads creating "new personalities", and then life goes on for another twelve hours. There is a wonderful scene in the film where a night watchman shares with his wife that his boss will take him off night duty (a personal joke from the writers) and within seconds the couple fall asleep in their soups. The Strangers enter their home and change them into elitist, rich snobs. Their house gains a few stories, a huge foyer with gargantuan support pillars appear and so does a beautiful skylight. The dinner table is stretched three times its size, in reminiscence of Citizen Kane but much quicker, and finally the couple awaken. The man begins to speak and says that he'll fire someone from the company the next day, ironically speaking about the man that he used to be.
One big reason for the film's title is because The Strangers had removed the sun from sight. Nightfall is always present but no one seems to notice. The citizens drone around in their meaningless jobs from day to day (pun intended) and The Strangers follow their every movement like rats in a maze.
What an imagination this film has! Alex Proyas (director of The Crow and I, Robot) is the visionary genius behind this film. It was co-written by Lem Dobbs (Kafka, The Limey) and David S. Goyer (Blade, Batman Begins). The film works on many different levels. Multiple viewings only enrich the atmosphere and experience of the film even more.
Recently a director's cut had been issued on DVD and Blu-ray. The director's cut is 15 minutes longer than the theatrical version; the intro monologue from Dr. Schreber is cut out and some of the soundtrack has been removed from the background of select scenes and replaced with sounds of buildings being “tuned”. The original special effects in the film were magnificent in general, and they were never placed there for the sake of having special effects. They were minimal and they assisted the storytelling. The director's cut has the film treated for high definition and the special effects were tweaked as well. A few more special effects were added and, somehow, it makes the final climactic showdown in the film even more epic.
I love this film and have viewed both versions of it multiple times. I have also studied it frame by frame. I love the reoccurring motif of a spiral: when Inspector Bumstead falls asleep at his accordion, a spiral of milk spins in his coffee; when Murdoch inspects the subway system routes he notices that they lead in spirals; spirals are cut into the flesh of "Murdoch's victims", the serial killer version anyway; and when The Strangers inspect what aspects of the city to change their miniature model of the city is spiral shaped. Every little thing that can occupy time and space does so meaningfully, in every frame and without waste. This is a perfect film and I believe that it will be remembered for a very long time to come.