Dark City (1998) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Two thumbs enthusiastically raised for this astounding visual masterpiece.

Scoop's comments in white:

Helluva movie!

Very few films are capable of creating an entirely different world in which humanity may dwell. When such movies come along, works of imagination like Fritz Lang's Metropolis, we tend to form cults around them and we never forget having seen them. There were three great ones in the 1980's, Terry Gilliam's Brazil, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and Tim Burton's Batman, and then the well went dry for about a decade until, in the dying embers of the previous millennium, there were two formidable new entries into this arena: Jean-Pierre Jeunet's City of Lost Children (1995), and Alex Proyas's Dark City (1998).

Dark City features a mini-world in which humans think they are in charge, but in fact are just stuck in the experiments of another race, like rats in a very complicated maze. The Strangers are a dying race who can alter time and space through sheer will, but cannot figure out how to keep their race from dying out. In fact, they are melding into a single group consciousness, and losing all sense of individuality. They admire the liveliness and passion of humans, and are trying to determine how to incorporate human emotions, joy, and individuality into their own race. They change the entire world every night at midnight, when they stop time and humans sleep.

If you erase a mass murderer's consciousness and give him Albert Schweitzer's memories, will he become a philanthropist, or will something in his genetic composition steer him back to murder? And what about our surroundings? If you change them, do you change us? Probably, but if so, how much? We really don't know the answer to these questions, and ultimately that's what The Strangers think they need to know if they are to understand individualism.

Rufus Sewell, who appears despite all evidence to the contrary NOT to be Joachim Phoenix, plays the part of a murderer who awakens in his bathtub. At least he thinks he might be a murderer. Some people think he is, but he doesn't remember anything about anything. In fact, nobody in town seems to really know much about anything. They aren't sure how to find other parts of town, or the towns they grew up in. Oh, yeah, and nobody can remember the last time they saw daylight, but they don't seem to worry about it. 

Life isn't always fair, and success in the film industry is sometimes the most unfair of all life's elements. If this movie had been a major success on the level of The Matrix, which it resembles in many ways, Rufus Sewell would now be a major star. It wasn't, and he isn't. In 1998 he was in at least three meritorious movies (Dark City, Illuminata, Dangerous Beauty, and two others I haven't seen). In 2002 his only theatrical release was Extreme Ops, a dreadful schlockfest about international war crimes and snowboarding.

Dark City revives the old German Expressionist school of cinema. The primary themes of Expressionism are based in the ongoing human struggle to make sense of the world around us. Instead of epic heroes who triumph over adversity, or tragic heroes - great men who collapse from their tragic faults, Expressionist films present ordinary men as anti-heroes who simply can't figure out the answers to life. The original Expressionist films were defined by a unique visual style, in which powerless men were lost in a confusing and oppressive world of soul-destroying machines, mass confusion, and horrible creatures, and in which the settings did not reflect reality, but the emotions of the characters. Examples include Murnau's Nosferatu, Lang's Metropolis, and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. That artistic movement was a product of the German consciousness at the conclusion of WW1. Germany was defeated, humiliated, and destitute, and the dark mood of the Expressionists seemed to find an emotional connection to the depression of the people who lived through those times.

Dark City's revival of German Expressionism is a clever and completely appropriate conceit, because the settings in this film are literally the product of the psychology of The Strangers. When they want to change the settings, they need only to think about it. The humans are generally oblivious to The Experiment, since they are re-implanted with false memories and lives according to the whims and scientific goals of The Strangers. Humans are simply the rats in their maze, until one human (Rufus Sewell) acquires the ability to stay awake during the nightly changes, then starts to investigate the elements of life that don't make sense (why is there never any daylight, although there is daylight in their distant memories?), then starts to acquire powers that match and perhaps even exceed those of The Strangers.

I admire the visualization and pure imagination of Dark City very much, and I think it succeeds grandly at creating the mood it seeks, but I do wish the script was coherent. It is just filled with logical flaws. The Strangers change around many things every single night, and they need a human to help them (they have the same relationship with this human that Dracula has with Renfield, and Kiefer Sutherland even does some kind of Mad German Doctor accent to play the official Renfield/toady part). They show this Mad Doctor creating the memory implants and injecting the humans with them - but wait a minute. If this is the only human who does the injecting, what happens to the thousands of other humans who wake up in a world filled with different surroundings from they ones the saw when they went to sleep? The one doctor doesn't have the time to create and inject the sera for all those people. In addition, if the humans only sleep during the nightly "tuning", and the doctor works all that time, when does the doctor sleep? We know that he does his lab work during the other times. Apparently he never sleeps, even though he is a normal human.

The film could make sense if The Strangers only made some minor changes each night, but we see hundreds of buildings changing shape during each "tuning". How can it be that nobody notices? The doctor doesn't have time to inject all of the people affected by these changes.

Oh, well, I don't think you're supposed to subject this to any analytical thinking. Expressionism is the art movement which brings human emotions to life, often divorced from human logic. You aren't supposed to subject Munch's The Scream to logical analysis, you're just supposed to feel the pain of the screamer. You're supposed to let the art wash over you. And it is some very impressive art simply because it is nearly pure emotion. Although Munch's painting technique is technically mediocre and the depicted situation has no logical connection to any specific reality, everyone who has ever seen that painting can remember it, even if they can't name the artist or the work itself.


Melissa George shows it all as a prostitute

Natalie Bollard her breasts as an anonymous murder victim

Dark City is to cinema as Munch's The Scream is to painting. It is also some very impressive art, and it is also approaching the level of pure emotion. It is almost an unquestioned masterpiece like Blade Runner, except that Dark City has two ingredients that keep it from that level:

1. Blade Runner's dialogue is almost as memorable as that in a Shakespearian play.

"I make your eyes"

"If you could see, old man, what I have seen with your eyes".

Because the humans of Dark City are formed from generic personalities, they speak generic dialogue. Lacking the resonant genius of Roy Batty or the resigned noir integrity of Deckard, Dark City lacks the poetry and eloquence of Blade Runner.


2. Excluding the dialogue, Dark City is as strong as Blade Runner for about 75 minutes, from the end of the prologue until Rufus Sewell finds out all the secrets of Dark City.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Commentary by director Alex Proyas, writers Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and production designer Patrick Tatopoulos

  • Commentary by Roger Ebert

  • Comparisons to Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926)

  • Set designs

  • "Neil Gaiman" on "Dark City"

  • Interactive game "To Shell Beach..."

  • Full-screen and widescreen anamorphic  (2.35) formats

  • Before that section, there is a voice-over prologue which reveals key details which should have been revealed slowly as mysteries. Don't turn the sound on until you see Kiefer Sutherland look at his watch.
  • After that section, there is an anti-climactic battle between Sewell and The Strangers in which Sewell goes from being a powerless, confused murder suspect to possessing the power of God himself. The last 20 minutes play out exactly like a 1960s Marvel Comics battle between Dr Strange and Dread Dormammu, and because of this epilogue, the film ended up losing the essence of what makes Expressionism and film noir so powerful, namely that the individual can attain only limited personal triumphs in his battle to retain his soul against the all-powerful State. He should finish the story with some hope, but he can't suddenly BECOME the all-powerful state. It is as if Munch painted another companion piece in which the screamer had a big smile on his face, because he realized that the cause for his previous despair was a false alarm.
Tuna's comments in yellow:

Dark City is Science Fiction, and is shot in a noir 40's style. I dislike dark films, and am not overly fond of Science Fiction in general. This film would have had to be very good to overcome my prejudices, and it was. Why this film was not given some recognition by the Academy is a total mystery to me.

Like The Matrix, it is a film about a futuristic world, and people who are trying to figure out what the world is and why. Unlike The Matrix, we discover the answers to these questions as the characters do, rather than having the story explained in expository dialogue. In addition, the special effects are orders-of-magnitude better in Dark City. The mood is set by art direction, photography and acting, and is consistent from beginning to end. It is impossible to talk much about the plot without writing a spoiler, but this is a physical world inhabited by real people, not a mental cyber-creation like the matrix.

An Australian production, it was written and directed by Alex Proyas, who also brought us The Crow. What he achieved here is a complete world that is believable even though some of what happens is improbable. It works because of the attention to consistency and detail. It is more of an experience than a plot. Although the plot is interesting enough, it is experiencing this world first hand that makes the movie. 

The DVD is excellent, with both a widescreen and a full-negative 4/3 version. (The 4/3 version shows more skin than the wide screen one). The disk also boasts two commentary tracks, the first a scene-by-scene breakdown by Roger Ebert, the second a running commentary by the main production people, including writer, director, editor and art director.

The Critics Vote

  • General USA consensus: three. Ebert 4/4, Berardinelli 3.5/4. Those two guys love it even more than we do.

  • This film was nominated for NO Oscars, not even special effects and set design and that kind of stuff. (Cough. Cough. Blowjob. Blowjob.) It won a host of awards, mostly at Sci Fi/horror/fantasy festivals.

The People Vote ...

  • Box office was disappointing. It did only $14 million at the box, despite a $27 milion budget.



The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, Scoop says, "this film is a C+. Brilliant genre film that seems too dark and obscure to general audiences, although B may be a fair score, based on the fact that Tuna likes it as much as I do, although I like both noir and Sci/Fi, and he does not". Tuna says, "This is a B-. If you haven't seen it, it is a very under-rated film."

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