Combustible Celluloid
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With: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, Richard O'Brien, Ian Richardson, Colin Friels, Bruce Spence, William Hurt
Written by: Lem Dobbs, David S. Goyer, Alex Proyas
Directed by: Alex Proyas
MPAA Rating: R for violent images and some sexuality
Running Time: 100
Date: 27/02/1998

Dark City (1998)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Alien Noir

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One of the most amazing things about Dark City is that it was made from an original screenplay, written by Lem Dobbs, David S. Goyer and director Alex Proyas. When was the last time you saw a movie that was not only not based on a book, TV show, comic book, video game, song, or another movie, but was actually a new story, something you hadn't seen before? (For an example, look at the Oscar nominees for Best Original Screenplay -- all formula stuff we've seen reworked a hundred times.)

The truth is, when watching Dark City, directed by Alex Proyas, we do think of other movies; Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, Tim Burton's Batman, Proyas' previous movie The Crow, and even last year's excellent Gattaca. But we think of them in terms of landmarks of their time. Now this is a new landmark, making the others part of the past.

I shouldn't describe the fantastic story of Dark City. It is the most imaginative, complex sci-fi story I've seen in years, worthy of "The Twilight Zone." It begins as a man (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a hotel room with no memory of who he is or how he got there. He discovers that he has a wife (the beautiful Jennifer Connelly), who is a torch singer. He also discovers that he may be responsible for killing several "ladies of the night." Then a weird doctor (Keifer Sutherland) and a detective (William Hurt) come into the picture, and everything you know, and everything you think is going to happen, get blown away. Let me just say two words to describe this genre: "alien noir."

Some have criticized the film for being cold, but I would have to disagree. There are plenty of quiet moments where the characters, mostly sad and lonely people, talk among themselves about the things they hold most dear, and wonder why things like that have gone away. The main goal of the Rufus Sewell character is not riches, or glory, or even good-triumphing-over-evil, but simply to see the beach one more time.

Dark City is only Proyas' second film, and it comes four years after the accidental death of Brandon Lee on the set of The Crow. Proyas finished The Crow, and it turned out amazingly, surprisingly well. If Hollywood has been superstitious about working with Proyas again, that fear has been waylaid. This is a tremendous achievement, and it announces the arrival of a great talent. Likewise for screenwriter Lem Dobbs, who wrote the legendary unproduced screenplay Edward Ford as well as the visually stunning Kafka.

The sound and visuals of this movie are not to be missed on the big screen if at all possible.

The Dark City DVD is very much worth having. It comes with two commentary tracks, one by Roger Ebert -- who screened the film one frame at a time for his annual University of Colorado film class in Boulder -- and one by the filmmakers. Extras include an essay by Neil Gaiman, an interactive "game" and a comparison to Metropolis.

Notes on the 2008 "director's cut.": I was always a fan of Alex Proyas' Dark City, even in its original cut. I saw it once in the theater in 1998 and then once or twice again on DVD, but not very recently. When the director's cut arrived, I sat down to watch it and, despite a full 15 minutes being edited back into the film, I honestly couldn't tell what any of the changes were. I know that the opening narration has been deleted, and I suspect that more footage of the "Strangers" has been added. I'm sure if I had refreshed my memory with the theatrical version before watching the director's cut, I could have picked out a few additions, but the point is that both versions play spectacularly; my opinion did not change from the original cut to the new one. I love it just as much.

I'm posting this update alongside my old review, so that I can add some new thoughts on the film. Mainly, I was impressed at how many quiet moments the film has, how hushed the dialogue is and how low-key everything seems. There's no frenzy or frenetic chases; the most pulse-pounding moment takes place on a slow-moving rowboat (you can hear the water rippling). The movie is very definitely inspired by classic noir, with the "automat" and the old-fashioned movie theater, all the way down to William Hurt's classic detective costume (has anyone determined the significance of the untied shoelaces yet?) and Jennifer Connelly's job as a torch singer. Subsequently, Proyas tries hard to capture the mood of a classic noir, with the shadows and whispering. Ten years later, it hasn't aged a day, and I suspect it will continue to live on.

New Line's 2008 DVD doesn't repeat many of the features from the 1998 DVD; even Roger Ebert's commentary track seems to be new (although the DVD box describes the commentary tracks as "expanded.") Regardless, real fans will want to keep both DVDs. Proyas gets a solo track, and writers Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer team up for a third track. Proyas provides an introduction, and there are two fairly lengthy featurettes (both new). Finally we get a photo gallery and a trailer.

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