Dark City (1998)

-Reivew by Paul Ewbank-

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So my last batch of reviews have been stretching the boundaries of what can be considered apocalyptic almost to breaking point, so let’s get back to what this blog is really all about: horribly depressing apocalyptic and dystopian media. Well you can’t get much more dystopian sounding than a film called Dark City. A cult-classic dose of neo-noir futurism with a weird as hell plot, plenty of mind boggling concepts and an army of Richard O-Brien lookalike aliens, Dark City is an odd little thing, but very enjoyable.

John Murdock wakes up in a bathtub with no memory of how he got there. In the next room is a gruesomely murdered woman who the police think he killed. On the run from the cops through the grimy twilight city he calls home and trying to remember who he is and reconnect with a woman who claims to be his wife, John also runs afoul of a sinister group of mysterious men in suits who seem to be running the city from the shadows. All the while Murdock seems to be acquiring strange psychic powers, and with the help of a shifty scientist who seems to know him he attempts to figure out what it is that’s not quite right about his city. The truth about John and the city is gradually revealed, and unless you’re taking a lot of drugs I can guarantee it is not what you’re expecting.

The aesthetic of the film is very cool. The sets, costumes a lot of the characters are straight for a dozen hard-boiled noir detective movies, and whilst the film is presumably set in the future, it’s not high-tech enough to be cyberpunk. Instead it’s retro and futuristic all at once and I really liked it. Add in copious amounts of low-budget sci-fi effects and creepy aliens in suits and you’ve got something pretty darn original. The city itself is gothic and oppressive and the dark, narrow streets are appropriately claustrophobic. At no point does it look remotely realistic- and that’s not just due to the lame 90’s effects- and you’re always aware you’re looking at sets not actual places, but that’s part of the charm.

Unrealistic but fun is a good way of describing the plot too. Initially a fairly grounded detective mystery about a guy finding his memories, things quickly escalate to become very silly indeed. Midway through you’ll be treated to a scene of a room full of bald men with psychic powers in an underground lair plotting evil and calling each other Mr. Hand and Mr. Book, and from here on out its only gonna get weirder. I’ve already told you there are aliens and I really don’t want to spoil any more, but the truth about John and his world is at once ridiculous and kinda awesome. It’s definitely a great idea and makes for some extremely surprising revelations. Little clues like how actually getting out of the city seems impossible and nobody can really remember anything specific about their past are really cool, and are well integrated into the story without seeming like obvious foreshadowing. A lot of the ideas are pretty farfetched to say the least but this clearly isn’t a move that’s concerned with being realistic or plausible. And whilst the plot may be silly and the action scenes a bit goofy, Dark City is kept grounded by its consistent tone and the strong performances of the main cast.

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Rufus Sewell (count Adhemar from A Knight’s Tale!) acquits himself well as the hapless protagonist, as does Jennifer Connolley as his estranged wife, and William Hurt is an absolute scene stealer as the archetypal long-suffering police detective. Richard O’Brien tones down his usual camp a tad (only a tad!) and focuses instead on the menace and mystery of his usual Rocky Horror persona, and also gets some scenes with surprising emotional depth. Only Kiefer Sutherland as Dr Schreber is less than fantastic; once you notice his-tendency to- say everything in- ridiculously- short phrases then it becomes very distracting. I guess that’s a pretty small complaint in the grand scheme of things.

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Dark City may be weird, daft and camp but is succeeds by taking itself totally seriously and giving you an unpredictable and adventurous story with a lot of twists, great visuals and some real heart. It’s definitely a love it or hate it kind of movie, but those willing to suspend their disbelief will be rewarded with a fascinating little dose of strange.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Michael Laws says:

    I remember actually really liking this when it first came out on DVD lo, many years ago, but I don’t think I’ve seen it since. Thanks for the reminder that it’s probably about time to give it a re-watch.

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