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Dark City: Director's Cut A+
Year Released: 2008 (Theatrical Cut: 1998)
Latter-day science fiction noir films are fixated on the notion of a Kantian-style identity crisis. We are not who we think we are, they tell us -- our fundamental sense of self has been altered and manipulated by malevolent external forces of which we are often unaware. The notion had appeared in earlier pictures, but it really exploded in the post-neo-noir period of the 1980s and '90s, fueled by the realization that much of what we perceive is governed by television and the media. Movie after movie gave us protagonists undone by fallacious assumptions about their fundamental selves. Rick Deckard believes that he is an elite policeman hunting Replicants when in fact he may be the very Replicant he's tasked to hunt. Sarah Connor thinks she's a ditzy waitress when in fact she is the mother of humanity's last, best hope against extinction. Thomas "Neo" Anderson assumes that he is a 20th-century computer hacker when in fact he's a protean man-infant stuck in the pod of a vast computer matrix. In every case, these characters find themselves completely unmoored, their security blankets ripped away by frightening creatures perpetuating a false version of who and what they are.
The notion achieved perhaps its purest form in Alex Proyas' Dark City, a film which -- like Blade Runner -- took some time to find its audience. It's baffling by design, its arcane plot and deliberately choppy editing intended to throw viewers into a state of confusion. Many people didn't get where it was coming from initially, believing its vision too derivative to really embrace. But multiple screenings allow its true worth to subtly unfold, as the audience's eyes -- like its protagonist's -- are slowly opened to the real power on display. The effect can be revelatory.
It starts in a hotel bathtub, where amnesiac John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakens with a sudden jolt just after the opening title. He remembers absolutely nothing, but soon finds himself in an atmosphere of pure nightmare. There's a dead woman on the floor and a frantic voice on the phone telling him that he needs to flee from sinister Strangers on their way to him right now. Who and what the Strangers are -- and how Murdoch came to be in that room -- drives him into a complex conspiracy at the heart of this strange world. The city outside of his hotel room seems cobbled together from different eras, shrouded forever in eternal night. Its boundaries are invisible yet inescapable (no one can leave) and people who Murdoch meets in one context eventually pop up again with the unwavering belief that they are now somebody entirely different.
In seeking the source of the mystery, Murdoch becomes the audience surrogate, asking our questions for us as the Strangers chase him relentlessly through the streets. The challenge of Dark City lies in accepting the fact that the answers won't come right away: that, like Murdoch, we're destined to be confused for a little while. We're so used to being spoon-fed our plots that the notion of a film thrusting us into an unknowable situation is shocking. Indeed, the studio was originally so concerned about keeping things clear that they dictated an opening voice-over explaining it all... which is kind of like Agatha Christie telling us that the butler did it in the first paragraph. (The voice-over has since become the most reviled of its kind since Harrison Ford's in Blade Runner and fans will be happy to know that it has been excised from the director's cut.)
Proyas' genius lies in his use of stunning visuals to both assuage us in the early scenes and pull us deeper into the plot. Dark City has always been praised for its art direction and cinematography: the deep shadows of its endless midnight are contrasted with sickly yellow streetlights, cold white interiors, and the aquatic blue of the bizarre underworld where the Strangers do their work. Echoes of German Expressionism blend with Lovecraftian menace to not only bring this world to life, but also illuminate the deeper notions which Proyas is attempting to explore. Where the hell is this place? Why doesn't anyone even think to leave? Did it even exist before Murdoch woke up?
The answers come, of course, unfolding like a poisonous flower, but their implications prove deeply troubling. Not only is memory subjective in Dark City, but the city itself shifts and changes to fit different parameters -- parameters which most of its inhabitants accept without question. Murdoch knows that something is terribly wrong, and he slowly convinces a few others to join him, but if they cast aside who they think they are, is there anything but emptiness waiting to replace it? And if some part of them is everlasting -- if their feelings and emotions have some inerasable core -- then how are they to separate it from this false sense of self imposed upon them like a cage? Those issues provide a complexity to Dark City which rewards those willing to invest the time in it (and which might explain why it thrived on DVD when the theatrical box office was less than kind).
On a more superficial level, it displays an urgent sense of energy that enhances both the haunted metropolis itself and those who inhabit it. Sewell's performance displays an aching vulnerability (a lovely surprise for those used to seeing him as a villain), as does Jennifer Connelly playing his torch-singer paramour. Kiefer Sutherland bends expectations too: after five years of watching him break thumbs as Jack Bauer, it's a delight to watch him inhabit the twitching, terrified psychologist who may hold the key to Murdoch's memory. William Hurt's laconic police detective rounds out the principles with some needed understatement, anchoring the film's wilder notions the way cynical noir heroes always do.
The director's cut changes very little on the surface. An additional 10 minutes help clarify the storyline by better justifying some of the characters' actions (as well as letting Connelly use her own singing voice). They also provide a closer look at the Strangers themselves, most obviously in a terrific monologue from Richard O'Brien's chilling Mr. Hand. The DVD extras include some fairly interesting documentaries, but truly earn their keep with the trio of audio commentaries from Proyas, screenwriters Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer, and Roger Ebert, who has long been a champion of the film and who recorded his comments before the recent loss of his voice.
That the new cut makes for a better movie is indisputable... though it doesn't necessarily make for a more accessible movie. That's part of Dark City's appeal, of course, and one of the reasons why it has flourished despite being initially dismissed as a failure. Those approaching it for the first time will need a little patience and trust that their enjoyment will grow the more they study it. They'll also have the benefit of coming to it fresh, without the opening voice-over cheating them of the experience like it did for the rest of us. And have no doubts, the experience of Dark City is one that no film lover should miss... seen now as it was intended after 10 long years of wandering in the shadows.
Review published 08.10.2008.
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