Retro Review: Dark City (1998)

Short Attention Span Review™

Dark City

4.0

Dark City PosterJoe Moviegoer will probably find this movie tiresome and confusing. It's definitely not for the average viewer. Most hardcore science fiction fans should appreciate its complex and winding plot. This movie is bound to be a dud at the box office, but don't let that keep you from seeing it if dark scifi is your thing.

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The text below the break is part of a DVD review originally written on March 8th, 1999.

Here are some updated thoughts:  While Dark City may not appeal to everyone’s tastes, it has gone on to be a respected cult classic within the science fiction and dark fantasy communities.  The late Roger Ebert lavished praise upon it, calling it a “great visionary achievement.”  Ebert loved the movie so much he cited it as the best film of 1998! and went on to provide a commentary track for the DVD release.

Many (but not all) viewers make the comparison between The Matrix and Dark City, espousing that the former shares many themes with Dark City.  This is partially attributed to the fact that The Matrix actually reused some of the set pieces from Dark City.  It’s been 17 years since I first watched Dark City, and it’s just as original today as it was then.

What would it be like to wake up in a bathtub with a trickle of blood running down your forehead?  You don’t know who you are or why you’re there.  When you leave the bathroom you find the remains of a butchered woman lying on the floor.  It sounds like the beginning of a 1950’s noir detective story . . . but it’s not . . . not by a long shot.

Director Alex Proyas (The Crow) answers the question, but not in a way you would expect.  In a desperate attempt to discover what has happened to him, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), with the help of Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt) and Emma Murdoch (Jennifer Connelly), uncovers a secret society known as “The Strangers.”  This alien society lives below the streets of the Dark City and use their psychic abilities known as “tuning” to manipulate the thoughts, memories, and physical lives of the unsuspecting inhabitants above . . . in a twisted experiment to better understand the human soul and the human condition.

Each evening, at midnight, The Strangers cause the city to sleep . . . during this time they carry out their experiments.  Yet John Murdoch does not sleep.  In fact, due to adaptation (and possible over tampering by The Strangers) he has developed the ability to “tune.”  The Strangers see this as a threat to their experiment and start hunting Murdoch down.  To help in the hunt, the skeletal Mr. Hand (Richard O’Brien) is injected with Murdoch’s memories.  This is all I’m going to say about the plot.  But there is much more to The Strangers, the Dark City, and John Murdoch than I have alluded to.

Looking back, I can’t help but wonder if the introductory narration by Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) detracts from the story.  I wish I could erase the movie from my head and re-watch it.  My recommendation: plug your ears during the intro narration (about 30 seconds), then watch it again, this time with the narration.

Dark City PosterJohn Murdoch awakens alone in a strange hotel to find that he has lost his memory and is wanted for a series of brutal and bizarre murders. While trying to piece together his past, he stumbles upon a fiendish underworld controlled by a group of beings known as The Strangers who possess the ability to put people to sleep and alter the city and its inhabitants. Now Murdoch must find a way to stop them before they take control of his mind and destroy him.

Dark City (1998)
Director:  Alex Proyas
Starring:  Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt
Genre:  Thriller / Science Fiction
Media:  Film, 103 minutes
Rating:  R
Year: 1998

4 out of 5 stars

The plot is somewhat slow to develop and frustrating in the beginning.  But Proyas does a good job answering all the questions that eventually pop into your head as you go along for the ride; though I think Proyas could have been a little more effective in presenting the plot.  The visuals are a hit and miss with me.  I like “dark” movies, but I don’t really like “dark looking” movies.  Everything is very dark and dreary looking, similar to The Crow, Kafka, and Blade Runner.  Out of these, I think Dark City deserved the look the most.  I cannot think of a more depressing scenario as one where my life, memories, and physical surroundings are being manipulated by psychic beings.  Disturbing.

One of the detractors for me was the costuming of The Strangers.  Every time I saw them I thought of Pinhead (Hellraiser) or the Borg.  A minor quible, but very distracting for me.  Kiefer Sutherland’s character was on the obnoxious side, but he was supposed to be.  His character reminded me of a modern attempt at a Peter Lorre caricature.

All of the acting seemed a bit too blasé and almost monotone in nature.  I think this is just a reflection on the character’s environment and the memory manipulation that was taking place, so I quickly dismissed it as a problem.  After watching Dark City, I think I would be numb if I lived in the that city as well.  The ending made me go “hmmmmm.”  If a movie can make me do that, then it has done its job.  I don’t need every story ending to be handed to me on a silver platter.  Its interpretations are many.  Running the gamut from biblical to utopian . . . depending on the viewer personal perspective.

Joe Moviegoer will probably find this movie tiresome and confusing. It’s definitely not for the average viewer. Most hardcore sci-fi fans should appreciate its complex and winding plot. This movie is bound to be a dud at the box office, but don’t let that keep you from seeing it if dark scifi is your thing.

Note:   I’m revisiting and re-posting many older articles (almost 200) I’ve written (or contributed to) over the years, either for my own purposes or as contributions to other sites now long digitally decayed and dormant.  These reviews/articles will appear in their nearly raw, unaltered form, with a few updated thoughts at the beginning of each.

About Neal Ulen

Neal Ulen

Editor/Webmaster – Neal is a writer and recovering engineer who likes pizza, the insidious power of sarcasm (and pizza), and debating science fiction (and pizza). You can also find his writing on Omni, Geeks, and other media platforms.