Skip to main content

I don't think the Sun even exists in this place.

Dark City: Director’s Cut
(1998)

(SPOILERS) My previous look at Dark City: Director’s Cut is the more concise one, and it’s entirely borne out by a repeat visit. In extended form, Alex Proyas’ best film remains flawed but fascinating, never quite finessed enough in its mythology or execution to warrant the neglected classic status sometimes thrust upon it. It’s packed with ideas – a great deal more than most fare with David S Goyer’s name attached – many of them more striking than those of the thematically comparable and undoubtedly superior, game-changing Wachowskis movie released the following year.

It’s easy to see why Dark City didn’t catch on while The Matrix did. Both have a protagonist who perceives the illusion of his reality and develops the ability to manipulate this false world, essentially becoming a superhero. But only one assembles the iconography to make that rousing. There’s little doubt Rufus Sewell is a more versatile actor than Keanu, but he isn’t a star, and we’re unable to project onto him in the manner necessary for a role that is essentially a blank (there’s nothing to John Murdoch, aside from his becoming empowered).

Without an engaging lead character – in part, an intentional choice – it’s necessary to invest in the supporting players and the mis en scene, and while both are arresting, they’re rarely dynamic. This world fails to kindle a sense of urgency or true claustrophobia. Some of that can be laid at the door of furnishing it with the mantle of 40s noir (and German Expressionist cinema). The result is closer to Terry Gilliam’s The Matrix, which means the incidental details have to be everything. And that’s Dark City’s pitfall.

Because, while you can feel Alex Proyas’ interests loud and clear throughout his somewhat rocky filmography, there’s rarely a strong sense of his character. That’s why he can deliver something as mainstream as I, Robot and then throw everyone for a loop with the loopy Gods of Egypt (possibly the most unfairly maligned movie of the last decade). Dark City has bags of atmosphere, but not very much personality. It exudes (very good) art direction, creating a world that, excepting the occasionally intrusive digital effects, looks vastly more expensive than it actually was to create. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (best known for his work with Gore Verbinski and Ridders) and art directors Michelle McGahey (amusingly, The Matrix) and Richard Hobbs (Fury Road) do sterling work.

The Strangers, meanwhile, are a positively inspired creations of eeriness, floating around the city and instructing the proles to “sleep” so they can perform their machinations. They’re obviously the Archon-esque equivalents of the Agents in The Matrix, but where the latter are configured in a fairly familiar Men in Black style, the Strangers’ legacy has been much more noticeable and impactive, from Buffy’s Gentlemen, to Fringe’s Observers, to The Adjustment Bureau’s employees.

While the Strangers too are blanks, they’re populated by the likes of Richard O’Brien, Bruce Spence and Ian Richardson (and Satya Gumbert as the inevitable scary Stranger kid; a bitey one at that). Indeed, O’Brien was Proyas’ inspiration for the characters (based on his performance as The Rocky Horror Show’s Riff Raff). He takes full opportunity to make a the most impact of any cast member when Mr Hand is given Murdoch’s memories in order to hunt him down. Most memorably in a scene with Jennifer Connelly’s Emma Murdoch; the dialogue itself isn’t especially arresting, as Emma comes to realise he knows what her husband knows, but O’Brien’s delivery is rich and resonant, and it’s exactly what the picture needs.

In the same regard, Kiefer Sutherland, then on the brink of a career second wind (on TV), having slipped into supporting roles for most of the 90s, shines as Dr Schreber. This is the mother of supporting roles, an opportunity to punctuate what might have been a perfunctory exposition machine by turning him into a hesitantly voiced, facially disfigured refugee from a Fritz Lang film. It ranks up there with his malignant boil in A Few Good Men as one of Sutherland’s very best screen performances.

Elsewhere, William Hurt underplays in that passively pained and dependable Hurt persona as the inspector trying to get a grip on this head trip; his most interesting quality might actually be his surname (Bumstead, hee-hee). Although, the scene in which he and a Stranger topple into space is highly memorable and well-conceived (and an addition during reshoots). Connelly does well with a blank (again, like Sewell, this is both intentional and a drawback). Melissa George is barely a cameo and ends up a corpse.

Dark City’s problems are less conceptual than they are structural and motivational. There’s a mystery here (what is this world?) and a goal (reaching Shell Beach), but the truths don’t have a great deal of impact (even with the removal of the expository dialogue that kicked off the theatrical version). There are clear analogies to reincarnation in the Strangers’ activities (“One day a man might be an inspector, the next someone entirely different”), and the limitations of prescribed reality (hence the Plato’s Cave reading of the picture, which is entirely relevant), but there’s no resonance to this the way there is with Neo when he discovers his paradigm is a lie. There’s powerful potential to the reset concept – the idea that we could awake as if continuing a life of drudgery, and yet this has been the first dawn for a newly overlaid persona – but it would only truly resonate if there was psychology, rather than cyphers, attached.

The Strangers themselves, in their appropriation of humanity (or this pocket of it), to create their own warped realm, occupy a not dissimilar role to the demi-urge of a false or corrupted world (see also The Matrix). It's also one that manages to take in both Flat Earth cosmology (this is a sealed, plane within an energy dome) and heliocentric (the city is floating amid the accepted universe). But their larger motivation doesn’t really scan, and rather diminishes them once it has been (over?) explained.

In contrast to The Matrix, there’s no realm to wake out of, only a realisation about the one you’re in. Which means the one area Dark City succeeds better than that picture is the uncanniness of not realising. Once Neo has awoken, there’s no returning to that deceived mindset, but Proyas continually stirs and prods at the limits of our ability to perceive beyond the assumed real. As I noted above, this doesn’t take off the way it might have with strong characterisation, but there are tantalising glimpses of profundity; Bumstead’s anger at John and initial inability to process his realisations is very resonant of any conversation with anyone occupying a firmly entrenched position in the prevailing paradigm. The scene in which the Strangers reconfigure a couple from scraping a living on the nightshift to the lap of luxury, or more mundanely, the hotelier transformed into a newspaper vendor, tracks the idea of just how, if our memories were remapped with our circumstances, we’d have no clue (it is from such bizarreness that we arrive at the Mandela Effect and its peculiarities). Or “When was the last time you remember doing something during the day?

You do feel Proyas rather shoots himself in the foot at times. The picture’s editing rarely gives us enough time for this world to develop potency (I don’t necessarily put this down to Dov Hoenig, who was doing great work with Michael Mann during this period, and good clean action with Andrew Davis). Even in its extended form, there’s a sense that Dark City is hurrying, but not in a tense way (at times, it actually feels like it’s dragging its feet, despite the choppy cutting). Some of that is a structural issue, one Proyas, Dobbs and Goyer never quite thrash out satisfactorily. Paradoxically, while there’s a lot to draw on here, Dark City never quite moves beyond the range of a Twilight Zone vignette. Where Neo is initiated into a secret society, Murdoch simply overthrows one, becoming all-powerful, now able to reconfigure this world as the Strangers did. But there’s no palpable sense of his achievement, of pleasure in his developing understanding of his world and triumphing over his tormentors.

As for the Strangers’ greater mission, it’s a bit of a let-down. Humans have souls “that makes us different from them”. They are on the brink of extinction, “use your dead as vessels” and have machines that help focus their telepathic abilities. Again, it’s both too much and not enough of the right thing. Proyas should probably have resisted even that much; his more pinned-down premise had the humans’ spaceship captured by the Strangers, giving birth to their experiment. In contrast, Goyer had a purgatory of the dead from different eras in history, which sounds more interesting. But then, so did Event Horizon on paper.

Still, John’s Blade Runner (the studio-mandated cut) ending, where the eternal night gives way to bright sunlight is quite nicely done, even if doesn’t really gel thematically (so is John Jesus, the saviour of this society?) Lem Dobbs provides a very erudite – he clearly likes what Proyas did, as opposed to his collaboration with Soderbergh on The Limey – breakdown of the picture’s post-modern trappings. And of the restricted reality of cities before travel allowed for escape (“Cities were prisons in themselves” – and they will be again, if Agenda 21 has its way). Unfortunately, such insights only goes to emphasise Dark City as a useful analytical text, which is very different to it being a great piece of cinema.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his…

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded
The Premise
George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983)
(SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bonds in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball, but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again, despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.