Archive Review: Dark City (1998)

Since I haven’t reviewed an older sci-fi movie and it’s my favorite genre, I reached into my archive and pulled out one of my favorite movie discoveries, “Dark City.”

One thing that science-fiction junkies often consider is what aliens would think of us if they studied our planet. Alex Proyas’ mystery thriller “Dark City” tells a tale of how they might experiment with us if they discovered our planet and what they would learn about what makes humans tick. In essence, that’s what Proyas’ script aims to do, discover just a little piece of what it means to be human, and that’s what all great films accomplish.

The Strangers are the aliens in the film who have the power of “tuning” which essentially means willing the physical environment around them with their minds and the help of their giant underground machines. They use this power of creation in combination with artificially manufacturing memories (with the aid of a scientist played by Kiefer Sutherland) to create scenarios in which to study their human subjects. So when John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up one night with no memory to find he’s wanted for murder, he begins to uncover the truth as he searches for answers to his own past.

“Dark City” begins as more of a mystery thriller. There are unsolved murders, John is searching for his memories and he’s being hunted by a detective (William Hurt). Couple that with Proyas’ vision for this experimental city environment, modeled in a 1930s or 40s style but with a dark and decrepit feel to it and you have sort of a science-fiction noir film. It’s really a beautifully imagined world even though it’s very old-fashioned and downtrodden. 

As the film progresses and you learn more about what the Strangers are up to and what they’re capable of (key in on Sutherland’s character for the explanations), then “Dark City” emerges as the sci-fi thriller it was born to be. Visual effects abound (that are quite impressive for 1998), action around most corners and explanations of the bizarre aren’t more than a scene away.

Directorially, Proyas makes more a visual statement early on in the more noir/mystery portion of the film. There some really great shots — copious amounts of them in this film in general — all of which are helped out by intriguing lighting and set design. Between this and the script, you can tell just how vivid Proyas’ imagination has to be to actually bring this film to life.

For fans of science-fiction, this film is an easy favorite. All of the film’s shortcomings, whether you find the acting just sort of at par or the dialogue not all that stimulating for the actors to work with, the mythology of this film is so elaborate and spectacular that it gives your brain plenty to chew on. The film is not shy about its probing into the relationship between human memory and emotion and is exceptionally poignant in tackling such an abstract concept.

5/5 Stars

Directed by: Alex Proyas
Written by: Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs, David S. Goyer
Starring: Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly, Kiefer Sutherland

1 Comment

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