(Director’s Cut) This return visit to Dark City: Director’s Cut bears out my previous takeaway. In extended form, Alex Proyas’ best film remains flawed but fascinating, never quite finessed enough in its mythology or execution to warrant the neglected classic status sometimes thrust upon it. It’s packed with ideas – a great deal more than most fare with David S Goyer’s name attached – ones often more striking than those of the thematically comparable and undoubtedly superior, game-changing Wachowskis movie released the following year.
It’s easy to see why Dark City didn’t catch on while The Matrix did. Both have a protagonist who perceives the illusion of his reality and develops the ability to manipulate this false world, essentially becoming a superhero. But only one assembles the iconography to make that rousing. There’s little doubt Rufus Sewell is a more versatile actor than Keanu, but he isn’t a star, and we’re unable to project onto him in the manner necessary for a role that is essentially a blank (there’s nothing to John Murdoch, aside from his becoming empowered).
Without an engaging lead character – in part, an intentional choice – it’s necessary to invest in the supporting players and the mis en scene, and while both are arresting, they’re rarely dynamic. This world fails to kindle a sense of urgency or true claustrophobia. Some of that can be laid at the door of furnishing it with the mantle of ’40s noir (and German Expressionist cinema). The result is closer to Terry Gilliam’s The Matrix, which means the incidental details have to be everything. And that’s Dark City’s pitfall.
Because, while you can feel Alex Proyas’ interests loud and clear throughout his somewhat rocky filmography, there’s rarely a strong sense of his character. That’s why he can deliver something as mainstream as I, Robot and then throw everyone for a loop with the loopy Gods of Egypt (possibly the most unfairly maligned movie of the last decade). Dark City has bags of atmosphere, but not very much personality. It exudes (very good) art direction, creating a world that, excepting the occasionally intrusive digital effects, looks vastly more expensive than it actually was to create. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (best known for his work with Gore Verbinski and Ridders) and art directors Michelle McGahey (amusingly, The Matrix) and Richard Hobbs (Fury Road) do sterling work.
The Strangers, meanwhile, are a positively inspired creations of eeriness, floating around the city and instructing the proles to “sleep” so they can perform their machinations. They’re obviously the Archon-esque equivalents of the Agents in The Matrix, but where the latter are configured in a fairly familiar Men in Black style, the Strangers’ legacy has been much more noticeable and impactive, from Buffy’s Gentlemen, to Fringe’s Observers, to The Adjustment Bureau’s employees.
While the Strangers too are blanks, they’re populated by the likes of Richard O’Brien, Bruce Spence and Ian Richardson (and Satya Gumbert as the inevitable scary Stranger kid; a bitey one at that). Indeed, O’Brien was Proyas’ inspiration for the characters (based on his performance as The Rocky Horror Show’s Riff Raff). He takes full opportunity to make the most impact out of the assembled cast when Mr Hand is given Murdoch’s memories in order to hunt him down. Most notably in a scene with Jennifer Connelly’s Emma Murdoch; the dialogue itself isn’t especially arresting, as Emma comes to realise he knows what her husband knows, but O’Brien’s delivery is rich and resonant, and it’s exactly what the picture needs.
In the same regard, Kiefer Sutherland, then on the brink of a career second wind (on TV), having slipped into supporting roles for most of the ’90s, shines as Dr Schreber. This is the mother of supporting roles, an opportunity to punctuate what might have been a perfunctory exposition machine by turning him into a hesitantly voiced, facially disfigured refugee from a Fritz Lang film. It ranks up there with his malignant boil in A Few Good Men as one of Sutherland’s very best big-screen performances.
Elsewhere, William Hurt underplays in that passively pained and dependable Hurt persona as the inspector trying to get a grip on this head trip; his most interesting quality might actually be his surname (Bumstead, hee-hee). Although, the scene in which he and a Stranger topple into space is highly memorable and well-conceived (and an addition during reshoots). Connelly does well with a blank (again, like Sewell, this is both intentional and a drawback). Melissa George is barely a cameo and ends up a corpse.
Dark City’s problems are less conceptual than they are structural and motivational. There’s a mystery here (what is this world?) and a goal (reaching Shell Beach), but the truths don’t have a great deal of impact (even with the removal of the expository dialogue that kicked off the theatrical version). There are clear analogies to reincarnation in the Strangers’ activities (“One day a man might be an inspector, the next someone entirely different”), and the limitations of prescribed reality (hence the Plato’s Cave reading of the picture, which is entirely relevant), but there’s no resonance to this in the way there is with Neo when he discovers his paradigm is a lie. There’s powerful potential to the reset concept – the idea that we could awake as if continuing a life of drudgery, and yet this has been the first dawn for a newly overlaid persona – but it would only truly resonate if there were psychology, rather than cyphers, attached.
The Strangers themselves, in their appropriation of humanity (or this pocket of it) in order to create their own warped realm, occupy a not dissimilar role to the demiurge of a false or corrupted world (see also The Matrix). It’s also one that manages to take in both Flat Earth cosmology (this is a sealed, plane within an energy dome) and heliocentric (the city is floating amid the accepted universe). But their larger motivation doesn’t really scan, and rather diminishes them once it has been (over?) explained.
In contrast to The Matrix, there’s no realm to wake out of, only a realisation about the one you’re in. Which means the one area where Dark City has the edge on than that picture is the uncanniness of not realising. Once Neo has awoken, there’s no returning to that deceived mindset, but Proyas continually stirs and prods at the limits of our ability to perceive beyond the assumed real.
As I noted above, this doesn’t take off the way it might have with strong characterisation, but there are tantalising glimpses of profundity; Bumstead’s anger at John and initial inability to process his realisations is very resonant of any conversation with anyone occupying a firmly entrenched position in the prevailing paradigm. The scene in which the Strangers reconfigure a couple from scraping a living on the nightshift to the lap of luxury, or more mundanely, the hotelier transformed into a newspaper vendor, tracks the idea of just how, if our memories were remapped with our circumstances, we’d have no clue (it is from such bizarreness that we arrive at the Mandela Effect and its peculiarities). Or “When was the last time you remember doing something during the day?”
You do feel Proyas rather shoots himself in the foot at times. The picture’s editing rarely gives us enough time for this world to develop potency (I don’t necessarily put this down to Dov Hoenig, who was doing great work with Michael Mann during this period, and delivering good clean action with Andrew Davis). Even in its extended form, there’s a sense that Dark City is hurrying, but not in a tense way (at times, it actually feels like it’s dragging its feet, despite the choppy cutting).
Some of that is a structural issue, one Proyas, Dobbs and Goyer never quite thrash out satisfactorily. Paradoxically, while there’s a lot to draw on here, Dark City never quite moves beyond the range of a Twilight Zone vignette. Where Neo is initiated into a secret society, Murdoch simply overthrows one, becoming all-powerful, now able to reconfigure this world as the Strangers did. But there’s no palpable sense of his achievement, of pleasure in his developing understanding of his world and triumphing over his tormentors.
As for the Strangers’ greater mission, it’s a bit of a let-down. Humans have souls “that makes us different from them”. They are on the brink of extinction, “use your dead as vessels” and have machines that help focus their telepathic abilities. Again, it’s both too much and not enough of the right thing. Proyas should probably have resisted even that much; his more pinned-down premise had the humans’ spaceship captured by the Strangers, giving birth to their experiment. In contrast, Goyer had a purgatory of the dead from different eras in history, which sounds more interesting. But then, so did Event Horizon on paper.
Still, John’s Blade Runner (the studio-mandated cut) ending, where the eternal night gives way to bright sunlight is quite nicely done, even if doesn’t really gel thematically (so is John Jesus, the saviour of this society?) Lem Dobbs provides a very erudite breakdown of the picture’s post-modern trappings (he clearly likes what Proyas did, as opposed to his collaboration with Soderbergh on The Limey). And of the restricted reality of cities before travel allowed for escape (“Cities were prisons in themselves” – and they will be again, if Agenda 21 has its way). Unfortunately, such insights only go to emphasise Dark City as a useful analytical text, which is very different to it being a great piece of cinema.