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Dark City

I first saw this movie as a freshman in college. At the time, I was enrolled in a mandatory English/history/philosophy class called First Year Seminar and part of the coursework was a Matrix/Dark City double feature. However, something went wrong with the projector when it was time to watch Dark City, so we saw it in black and white. This actually made the movie very intriguing. The greyscale presentation did wonders for the movie’s noir aspect as well as its neo-’50s/art deco style. A gritty, retro feel that contrasted nicely with the varying degrees of sleek futurism employed by The Matrix.

Needless to say, I later saw Dark City a second time in color and somehow loved it even more. I’ve seen this movie more times than I could count and it’s what I offer when anyone asks “Which movie should I watch?” when I’m in earshot.

Chances are good that you’ve never heard of this movie and there are two reasons why: Titanic and The Matrix. Dark City had the grave misfortune of seeing release while Titanic was still in theaters, dominating pop culture and obliterating everything in its path just as Avatar would do a decade later. The Matrix came out a year after and made a huge splash with ripples still visible to this day. As a result of this one-two combo, Dark City — which used many of the themes, tropes and archetypes seen in its cinematic brother — was overshadowed.

(Side note: James McTeigue, who would later make his directorial debut on V for Vendetta, served as an assistant director in both Matrix and Dark City. Another carry-over is Rowan Witt, the spoon-bending boy from Matrix, who appears as another bald background character in Dark City.)

If you want to know what this movie is about… well, you’re not going to get any answers from me. I seriously believe that newcomers are better off going into this movie knowing absolutely nothing. So much so that when I loan the DVD to friends, I do so in a blank case, just so the recipient can’t read the blurb on the back of the box. Suffice to say that the storyline involves an insomniac, a murder mystery and an experiment gone awry.

I’m proud to consider Dark City as one of my top two or three all-time favorite movies. Why? Well, let’s start with Rufus Sewell. What the hell happened to this guy? I’ve only ever seen him in this one movie as a likable protagonist with an epic development arc. What’s he been doing since? He did such great work as the pivot of this movie and I want to see more.

Also, this is the only movie in which I’ve found William Hurt to be remotely bearable. The guy has the vocal range of a bass drum and he can’t emote for shit, but these things inexplicably work to his benefit in this movie! Oh, and if you’ve ever thought that Kiefer Sutherland couldn’t not be a badass, then you really should see his work here.

But that doesn’t even get into my absolute favorite part: The story. This is a movie that starts out telling one story while a second, unexpected story slowly moves to the surface, pushing the first one aside. While The Matrix moved through explaining its universe with the trajectory and speed of a sniper’s bullet, the story of Dark City moves — not coincidentally — like a spiral. This is a movie that loops back on itself, repeatedly calling back to clues, characters, symbols and plotlines that you’d completely forgotten were established earlier. No matter how many times I watch this movie, I never get tired of watching the dominoes set into place or watching them fall.

Unfortunately, nobody can see any movie as often as I’ve seen this one without spotting a few nits to pick. There are a couple of scenes, for example, in which I can see wires. The opening voice-over does a lot to spoil the surprises in this movie, though that damage certainly could have been done worse. A few shots are obviously re-used and the score has a habit of abusing one or two themes, particularly during the action scenes. Oh, and while Jennifer Connelly is lovely in this movie and turns in some decent work, she does a godawful job of lip-syncing in a couple of scenes.

Nevertheless, this is a movie that always reveals more with every repeat viewing. This is a movie with layers upon layers of subtlety and symbolism that demand multiple screenings to sort through. It stimulates the viewer’s intellect and offers some nice philosophical musings without ever confusing or condescending. The premise and its execution are wonderfully unique and original. The VFX have held up pretty well and the visuals are uniformly stunning in their use of color, darkness and strategically placed Easter eggs. The action could charitably be described as hit-and-miss, but the story is a brilliant gift that keeps on giving. I urge you to go find this movie and see it at your earliest convenience.

3 Comments

  1. Comment by David Smart:

    Kiefer Sutherland – not Jack Bauer? This I have to see. I remember Total Film being especially critical of the opening narration – does the Director’s Cut modify it? Or should I watch the first few minutes on mute or something…?

  2. Comment by David Smart:

    Edit: Just found out that the DC does indeed remove the opening narration – totally gonna watch that version…

  3. Comment by Curiosity Inc.:

    Honestly, I prefer the theatrical cut. Yes, the DC does remove the opening voice-over, but it doesn’t put anything in its place. You’d think they could’ve put some opening credits in there or something, but they just left this huge void at the start of the movie. I’m not really sure which is worse.

    Aside from that, the DC doesn’t really add anything noteworthy or tell us anything new. No, I’ll take the much leaner and tighter TC. Opening monologue be damned.

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