Dark City: Director's Cut


Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

Dark City
"A stylish and engrossing mystery - an immature, yet energetic explosion of storytelling ideas."

A naked man emerges from a hotel bathroom with a head-wound. He has no memories and there is a smashed syringe on the floor. He takes the name John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) and rapidly finds himself on the run for a string of brutal and ritualistic prostitute slayings. They lead Murdoch to delve into the nature of the city. While discovering he has some unusual powers of his own, he also finds allies, such as his wife (Jennifer Connelly) and others who question their ability to remember specific things, but never question their emotions or instincts.

These tricks of the memory can be laid at the feet of alien Strangers whose nefarious dealings in the dark of night have ramifications for everyone. And why are they meddling with mankind's memories? That would be telling. Working alongside them is the mysterious and physically frail Dr Schreiber (Kiefer Sutherland) a human scientist, who is also a self-loathing traitor to his own species.

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Dark City is a stylish and engrossing mystery - an immature, yet energetic explosion of storytelling ideas, even if characterisation and tight scripting takes a back seat.

Director Proyas pays impressive homage to expressionistic filmmaking, blending iconographic imagery from a century of film (FW Murnau and Fritz Lang are obvious influences) with noir plot elements and half-baked science fiction. It should also be commended for predating The Truman Show and, most notably, The Matrix (The Wachowski brothers reuse some of Dark City's rooftop sets; they were shot in parallel in Sydney) in a pre-millennial thematic triplet of films creating artificial worlds with unknown manipulators.

The acting is reasonable, if never quite great. Sewell projects a lost soul on a journey to find its true purpose. William Hurt as Bumstead, a professional yet confused detective assigned to the murder case, makes the most impact on his limited screentime. Richard O'Brien is also good, projecting subdued danger as Stranger, Mr Hand. Ian Richardson as the Strangers' leader and Sutherland also turn in skillful, if brief, performances.

Most of the plot exposition relies on visual storytelling rather than scripting. Aided by gorgeous production design, cinematography and art direction Proyas convinces us of the world's verisimilitude. The visual effects have a stunning artistry about them, with interior environments morphing and melding together as though they were paint being smeared into place. The exterior visual effects shots are also splendid, with buildings reshaping and sprouting new structures, which slide and rotate into place like a perplexing jigsaw.

The apocalyptic finale is a slight let-down; loud and brash, while the prior two acts were subtle, intriguing, dark and creepy. However, it is managed cleverly, and well set up.

The director's cut changes the film slightly, emboldening the mystery story by shortening and moving the opening voice-over which explains the purpose of the Strangers. This was an original mandate by the studio to avoid confusing people early on. Interestingly enough, most people I talked to who saw the film back in 1998 did not remember the opening voice-over, choosing to remember the mystery story itself. The voice-over is restored to a monologue later on in the film - and other scenes are slightly changed. Furthermore, the visual effects get a pixel paint-job. The psychokinetic abilites have a visual signature that is slightly subdued early on, since Murdoch's gifts are not at their full potential. And the final battle gets numerous visual changes. It's a set of subtle touch ups, much in the vein of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner: The Final Cut.

Like Scott's great visual achievement, Proyas' Dark City is a treasure of imagination. Its story is for the inner teenage boy, sci-fi fan and movie geek alike. A comic-book yarn that's terrific fun, even if it doesn't stand up to close inspection.

Reviewed on: 02 Aug 2008
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Dark City: Director's Cut packshot
Extravagant sci-fi fantasy about a hunted man struggling with his memory gets a directorial polish.
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Director: Alex Proyas

Writer: Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs, David S Goyer

Starring: Rufus Sewell, William Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, Richard O'Brien, Ian Richardson, Bruce Spence, Colin Friels, John Bluthal, Mitchell Butel, Melissa George

Year: 1998

Runtime: 111 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Australia, US


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