If you have any sort of love of art (and everyone does in some way or other… don’t they?), you will occasionally come across something that, quite simply, speaks to you. Something whose ‘goodness’ actually transcends its own ‘goodness’, and defies proper explanation.
As example, take painting. One might love painting, love paintings, and because of that love make quite a study of painting. When presented with a new work, such a one might say that they like it, love it, hate it, or even that they are disinterested altogether. They will talk about why it is good or bad, mentioning things like: use of color, subject, symbolism, negative space, etc. They may also talk about schools of thought on painting, and comment on how some particular painting is a wonderful example of the continuation of expressionism or somesuch, and on and on.
Of course, some people enjoy paintings in the ‘I may not know much about art, but I know what I like’ sort of way.
In either case, once in a while (very rarely actually) one runs across a painting and finds themselves just standing there gaping, muttering again and again, ‘Wow.’
Then someone comes along and asks you what you think of the painting, and you just say, ‘Wow.’ And then they say something like, ‘What about that use of color?’, and you say, ‘Wow.’
It’s not that everything about the painting is done perfectly. Often it is not even that (in your most honest of critical assessments) you think the painting is all that ‘good’. There is just something about the painting that really strikes you. For you, at the very least, this painting is a masterpiece.
That painting (well, one of them) for me is A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte by Seurat. It’s widely recognized as a great painting of course, but to me it is probably in the top three of all-time, and apart from describing what is ‘good’ about it in the same ways hundreds of others might, I can’t really tell you why. And, I can tell you, it is the sort of painting where if you haven’t seen it in person you haven’t really seen it at all. You may look at those measurements in the caption under the picture, but it doesn’t do the same thing to your mind.
This inexplicable connection with a work of art is exactly how I feel about ‘Dark City‘. It has a lot going for it, but as with the idea I’ve tried to explain, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. And, much like Seurat’s painting, I just couldn’t stop staring at it.
If you had heard the beginning beforehand your interest would probably drop immediately. John Murdoch, played by Rufus Sewell, and probably best known as the ‘bad guy’ in the amazingly goofy movie A Knight’s Tale wakes up to find himself ‘standing over the body’ with little to no memory of who he is or what might have happened. Hmmm… haven’t we heard that before? And, a little too often? Frankly, yes.
Murdoch makes a break, and as one might expect, spends the rest of the movie running from one thing or another. First, there’s Police Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt). The cops are, naturally, after Murdoch. Naturally, again, Inspector Bumstead questions Murdoch’s wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly). As a final naturally, Murdoch, who doesn’t remember his wife or anything else, happens upon what in mid-century film noir we would have called ‘the in man’.
The book of film noir 101 explains that our plot will have a flawed anti-hero who gets himself in over his head, and spends most of the movie not knowing what’s going on. Apart from being the ‘hero’, he is also the ‘out man’. Our movie will also have a (sometimes slimy, sometimes merely nerdy, on rare occasions a perfectly normal) ‘in man’ who exists mainly to clue the hero in. He knows what’s going on (to some degree) and, while of varying degrees of ‘use’ himself, he serves to allow the hero to succeed.
For an even more recent example of these concepts see The Matrix.
Our ‘in man’ here is Dr. Daniel Schreber (Keifer Sutherland). Up to this point, things may seem a bit confusing. There should (maybe) seem to be a few too many ‘naturally’s involved for what I am claiming is such a good movie. Dr. Schreber clears this up for us. You see, something very odd is going on here. The truth is you know that the whole time just from the look and feel of the movie.
In a wonderfully acceptable version of ‘nothing is what it seems’, the truth is that a certain alien race is controlling everything that is going on in our characters’ lives. This alien race (bald and dressed all in nightmarish black) runs the Dark City like a researcher runs the maze his rats run through. These aliens have decided that something about the human soul/spirit/condition/mentality is the key to their survival. They are going extinct, and they need a solution. They need to learn (something) about humans, and the Dark City is their experiment.
They create situations for our characters to run through, and when the results do not illicit the information they need, they change the city and the memories of our characters in order to create a new ‘maze’ for them. As the aliens change the buildings in the city using only their minds one can almost see the man in the little, white labcoat picking up the little, white wall of the maze and moving it to a different slot.
Beyond that, I think this is the sort of movie that does not allow for the revealing of much. Suffice it to say that our hero and his newly acquired sidekick struggle against the powers controlling them. Meanwhile, our hero and his ‘wife’ get to know each other. Not precisely biblically, but close.
Though it may not seem like it from what I’ve described, the plot is an excellent one. Moreover, the plot is almost irrelevant. It defies attention in a way. It sidesteps out of your way. Instead of the plot being the main focus, and thus pushing you or guiding you along, the movie itself pulls you along by way of the characters and the plot is merely what happened to happen.
The characters are all excellent, and that’s a much tougher trick when the main premise is that none of your characters actually know who they are. You are intrigued by them, and because they are portrayed so realistically you are willing to discover them as they go about discovering themselves.
Everyone in the movie delivers a polished and nearly perfect portrayal of their character and situation. Rufus Sewell took me by surprise (as I had not had much exposure to him), delivering almost the perfection of the anti-hero requisite of the genre. Jennifer Connelly (who makes the term ‘eye candy’ something you can almost say in an intellectually positive way) is at her very best, and you find (with a sigh of relief) that you can actually take her quite seriously. William Hurt is, as usual, a little too William Hurtish, but in a way less distracting than normal.
And then there’s Keifer Sutherland. Many people have made remarks about this movie that go something like, ‘Despite Keifer Sutherland…’, and I can’t say I entirely fault them. The truth is that Sutherland just isn’t very good (in general), but he has his moments. His moments tend to come when taking roles that do not require much. If you have a role that doesn’t require much, preferably one that is not dramatic or too deep, Sutherland is your man. But I must say, despite that, he is actually not too bad here. He somehow works in the role, though not perfectly.
What makes the movie what it is, however, is the virtual perfection of the mood. It is dark done right. It is not, as one might easily fear, a mere taking of the film noir genre and putting a goofy sci-fi spin on it. It is a continuation of the genre into a new area. Most interestingly (and gratifyingly) it is science-fiction only in that accidental way whereby if there are aliens it must be sci-fi. Thus, you will find it in the sci-fi section, but you shouldn’t. It is film noir through and through, and there is no logical reason to find this movie anywhere else.
The effects are brilliant, and (given the hi-tech, FX-addicted Hollywood in which we live) are surprisingly subdued. They are not just effects for the sake of having an effect that people can think is cool. Nor are they just effects so that something can jump out at you and scream, ‘I am the Effect!’. Quite to the contrary, the effects serve very valid purposes, and in some cases (when the buildings start to reshape, for instance) you don’t even notice them at first.
With a name like Dark City, and with all the talk about film noir, one may guess that everything is dark, and it is. But (as with the special effects), it is dark used, not merely dark for the sake of dark. Just as someone may say that a movie really used lighting well, this one uses darkness well. It almost becomes a character itself.
For a fairly similar mood and ‘feel’, one recalls The Crow, and with good reason. The writer/producer/director of Dark City also directed that movie.
I may not be able to explain it with precision, but I recommend the movie highly. It is an excellent example of film-making as art. Every detail of every scene is molded to fit (virtually) flawlessly into the whole. I have my reservations about the ending of the film, in that it tries a little too hard and could serve to distance itself from the audience. But then again, I have my reservations about Seurat’s overuse of loudly distinct edges in a work of pointillism.
Are You Screening?
Roger Ebert provides a commentary track on the DVD release by the way, and it is one of the best commentary tracks in existence.
Here’s the trailer.
*This review was originally published in 2002