Friday, 15 November 2019

Noir-vember: Dark City (1998)

A man wakes up. He's confused. He has no memory of how he got wherever he is. And there's the corpse of a woman uncomfortably close to him. The man immediately goes on the run, trying to piece things together while a cop pursues him, as well as some individuals who seem much further removed from the law. It's a standard noir set-up, all very familiar, until we start to see the sci-fi elements also incorporated here. A group of people with the power to change the environment, to uproot individuals from their lives and place them elsewhere, with all new memories implanted.

Surprisingly influential (The Matrix and Inception being the most obvious examples that spring to mind), and as intriguing to watch now as it was back when it was first released in 1998, Dark City is a thought-provoking piece of work that also never forgets to keep audiences entertained. It's a genre mash-up that could easily be fumbled, playing with some of the classic tropes before a major shift in tone as the sci-fi aspect of the plot becomes clearer, but director Alex Proyas does a great job of keeping the various plates spinning.

The cast are a big help, with Rufus Sewell used well in the lead role, all anxiety, panic, and confusion for most of the runtime. William Hurt is the Inspector pursuing him, and he's a man capable of taking a step back and trying to see some bigger picture that is somehow evading him. Kiefer Sutherland is amusing enough as a devious doc, Richard O'Brien is as spooky as he often can be, playing one of the other individuals chasing Sewell, and you also have solid turns from Ian Richardson, Bruce Spence, and one or two others. Melissa George and Jennifer Connelly are the two main female cast members. George, making her cinematic feature debut, somehow makes the stronger impression, despite having the "lesser" character, but I'll never pass up any opportunity to enjoy Connelly onscreen, even when she's left slightly adrift by the script.

Based on the story idea by Proyas, the screenplay is credited to him, Lem Dobbs, and David S. Goyer. It's not exactly full of the best dialogue, and seems almost too wary at times of making things as hard-boiled as they could be, but it works very well when bringing together the characters and the ideas at the heart of the plot, providing answers during the finale that can also lead to some more questions in a way that should satisfy sci-fi fans.

There are some moments that feel restricted by the tech of the time, but not nearly as many as you would think. Overall, it's easy to believe that you're watching a film about a city being manipulated and experimented upon by powerful strangers who can alter buildings, fixtures, and entire cityscapes, in minutes. The design work throughout is excellent, as are the practical effects, and all of the visuals are accompanied by a fine score from Trevor Jones.

Although I don't dislike the more recent films from Proyas as much as other people (having not yet seen Gods Of Egypt, but I really liked Knowing), it's always a pleasant surprise that he began his feature film career with the one-two combo of The Crow and this. Both of which have stood the test of time better than, for example, the slick blockbuster entertainment of I, Robot.


Get the director's cut here.
Americans can buy it here.

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