Dark City Reviews
Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus stated: "Stylishly gloomy, Dark City offers a polarizing whirl of arresting visuals and noirish action". Roger Ebert writing in the Chicago Sun-Times called it a "great visionary achievement," while also exclaiming that it was "a film so original and exciting, it stirred my imagination like Metropolis and 2001: A Space Odyssey." In the San Francisco Chronicle, Peter Stack wrote that the film was "among the most memorable cinematic ventures in recent years", and that "maybe there's nothing wrong with a movie that is simply sensational to look at." He felt the film's "twisting of reality and its daring look - layered and off-kilter grays, greens and blacks - make it click." In a mixed review, Walter Addiego of The San Francisco Examiner thought "as a story, Dark City doesn't amount to much." He believed Dark City contained a "complicated plot" while also having important themes that were "no more than window dressing". But on a positive front, he wrote, "what counts here is the show, the creation of a strange world by a filmmaker who clearly knows science fiction and fantasy, past and present, and wants to share his love for it." Left unimpressed, Marc Savlov of The Austin Chronicle wrote, "You really have to feel for Alex Proyas. This guy wears bad luck like the grimy trenchcoats of his protagonists, only his zipper's stuck and he can't seem to shake the damn thing off." In expressing his negativity, he believed "Dark City looks like a million bucks (or rather, a million bucks gone to compost), but at its dark heart it's a tedious, bewildering affair, lovely to look at but with all the substance of a dissipating dream." Left equally disappointed was John Anderson of the Los Angeles Times. Commenting on the directing, he thought "If you had to guess, you might say that Proyas came out of the world of comic art himself, rather than music videos and advertising. Dark City is constructed like panels in a Batman book, each picture striving for maximum dread." He went on to say, Proyas was "trying simultaneously to create a pure thriller and sci-fi nightmare along with his tongue-in-cheek critique of artifice. And this doesn't work out quite so well." Author TCh of Time Out, felt the development of the Murdoch character was "surprisingly engrossing" and thought production wise, the "art direction is always striking, and unlike most contemporary sci-fi, the movie does risk a cerebral approach, tapping a vein of postmodern paranoia." Writing for TIME, Richard Corliss said the film was "as cool and distant as the planet the Strangers come from. But, Lord, is Dark City a wonder to see." James Berardinelli writing for ReelViews, remarked that "Visually, this film isn't just impressive, it's a tour de force." and noted that "Dark City opens by immersing the audience in the midst of a fractured, nightmarish narrative." Berardinelli also said "Dark City appears to be New York during the first half of this century, but, using a style that is part science fiction, part noir thriller, and part gothic horror, he has embellished it to create a surreal place unlike no other." Describing some pitfalls, Jeff Vice of the Deseret News said that "when critics talk about films being 'style over substance,' they're definitely talking about movies like Dark City, which looks good but leaves an unpleasant aftertaste." Vice however was quick to admit, "The special effects and set designs are dazzling", but ultimately believed "Proyas makes a crucial error in treating the subject even more seriously than The Crow, and the dialogue (co-written by Proyas and The Crow: City of Angels scriptwriter David S. Goyer) is unintentionally funny at times and often just plain dumb." Andrea Basora of Newsweek, stated that director Proyas flooded the screen with "cinematic and literary references ranging from Murnau and Lang to Kafka and Orwell, creating a unique yet utterly convincing world". Similarly, David Sterritt wrote in the Christian Science Monitor that "The story is dark and often violent, but it's told with a remarkable sense of visual energy and imagination." Additionally, Marshall Fine of USA Today, found the film to be "Fascinating, visionary filmmaking." and "With its amber-tinged palette and its distinctively dystopian view of life, it may be the most unique-looking film we've seen in ages...[but] defies logic and makes frightening and unexpected leaps." Critic Stephen Holden of The New York Times wrote that the "plot that Dark City builds on John's predicament is a confused affair" and that the film's premise is "unsettling enough to make you wonder if it could actually derail a seriously drug-addled mind." Steve Biodrowski of Cinefantastique found the production design and the cinematography overwhelming, but he considered the narrative engagement of Sewell's amnesiac character to be ultimately successful. Biodrowski writes, "As the story progresses, the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, and we gradually realize that the film is not a murky muddle of visuals propping up a weak story. All the questions lead to answers, and the answers make sense within the fantasy framework." The reviewer compared Dark City to the director's preceding film The Crow in style but found Dark City to introduce new themes and to be a "more thoroughly consistent" film. Biodrowski concluded, "Dark City may not provide profound answers, but it deals seriously with a profound idea, and does it in a way that is cathartic and even uplifting, without being contrived or condescending. As a technical achievement, it is superb, and that technique is put in the service of telling a story that would be difficult to realize any other way."
"Dark City" is a unique film with a touch of science fiction, noir thriller, and gothic horror and I personally think that Alex Proyas has created something stand alone in which you still can see and feel its inspiration and foundations. The storyline throws you around and you are not sure what is right, what is wrong, what is fantasy, what is real and who is who. This surreal Kafkaesque noir original film almost creates its own genre, but yet it never goes so far that it loses track of its own identity. However, the plot isnīt always fully understandable and at times the editing and scenestructure becomes slightly confusing. The ensemble with Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt and Kiefer Sutherland are all doing a fine job, but you can almost see in their faces that they werenīt sure themselves what was going on during the shoot. The photography is great, the production values of a high standard and we get hypnotic stunning visuals. I do like the eye-catching, stylish future noir design of this visionary world our main characters inhabit, which does look like New York City during the time period of the 1940s. The themes about loss of identity and the destruction of individualism in order to create an ideal society is for sure intriguing. However, "Dark City" suffers from the fact that a lot of the character development and the story itself is never revealed which makes you ask way too many questions during the film. Thereīs something that simply doesnīt hold the film together even if thereīs so much that points in a direction of movie greatness. "Dark City" is so promising, but in the end I can only give it a 3 out of 5 as the film is lacking something fundamental I simply canīt pinpoint.
A highly original, clever and intriguing movie. Starts with a film noir-like feel but develops into a sci fi movie too. A sort of film noir-sci fi drama. Very gritty, edgy, dark (literally and figuratively) feel with an intelligent, unpredictable plot.
Good special effects too.
Solid work by Rufus Sewell in the lead role with good support from William Hurt, Jennifer Connelly, Kiefer Sutherland and Richard O'Brien (of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame). Supporting cast also includes Ian Richardson and Colin Friels, plus Melissa George in her first big screen role.
Dark City is one of those films that I remember only seeing bits and pieces of over the years; I'd be changing a channel and come upon Dark City and watch maybe a scene, a minute or two, and feel like I was being let in on some secret, or some disturbing dream that I had long ago that stayed in my subconscious. So over the years when I would think back to the film I'd remember these little snatches I'd caught on cable, like Keifer Sutherland explaining something about how memories and time works while going on a rowboat, or some ugly white dudes in big black costumes all in formation. Seeing the film in full finally, I think this was oddly enough an ideal approach: like many of the characters in the film, I have these, well, 'funny' feelings like something is adrift and out of place, that this snatch of a dream of Dark City is something that seems too good to be true as a film. As it turns out, this is one of the richest cinematic experiences from the 1990's.
Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, at least on the surface, it combines genres and does something unique, and in both cases the film language or grammar, the mood and feeling of film-noir (and film-noir may be more of a mood than a 'genre' of course, they stretch from being straight thrillers to psychological horror and even comedies and so on). But with Dark City instead of cartoon comedy we get science fiction. And I don't mean any run of the mill sci-fi, I'm talking sci-fi that's so hard that you can barely break it with a steel brick. The set up seems almost iniquitous as far as film noir tropes go: a man wakes up in a strange place (a hotel, always the best for seedy milieu) and can't remember anything, sees a dead body by the bed, and has to run from the cops and find his identity and what the hell has happened; his wife is a lounge-club singer (cut to lounge and sultry 40's style song); and there's a straight-shooting, curious but hard-liner detective on the case (Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connolly and William Hurt are these roles respectively, and ideally cast).
When we start to sort of cross the line with sci-fi, though it could still be in film-noir, is with a peculiar doctor played by Kiefer Sutherland (maybe his greatest role, I dare say, certainly the one he gets to have... fun in an odd way) who goes around with a needs and pricks people's heads for... what? And what's with these white bald guys in the black cloaks and trenchcoats? What about that little kid? All of course, we can assume, will be revealed in good time, and from the opening minutes I knew I was in the hands of a confident storyteller, though there was also a part of me that though "hmm, could Proyas and his writers be laying on the noir tropes a bit thick? Could this be like a Sin City where it's all style with only a modicum of substance?" Not that the style is off at all, don't get me wrong, it's almost TOO good. And lo and behold, about 35/40 minutes into the movie, we learn why.
That moment of discovering what's going on - without saying too much, not to spoil per-say just so you can get the excitement of discovery for yourself - somehow time stops all at once... all except for our hero, John Murdoch, who can't seem to understand why time has stopped. But it's at this moment that I fell in love with Dark City, and felt in sync with what it was going for and trying to do. It's a unique vision but it certainly is inspired by films of the past - Metropolis being one (remember the whole head/heart separation, which is part of the villains' master-plan, Blade Runner to an extent), and maybe even going into comic books there's a pulpy (but smart) sensibility that perhaps is why I also thought of Sin City. Why I fell in love with it is that the whole "Style" portion, and I keep using that word but it's for good reason, is due to the substance, it's inter-connected with it, can't have one without the other.
And as we follow John on this trip of self-discovery it's really a wholly philosophical film, about finding what it means to be us and how it connects back into why we would want to watch ANY movie in the first place, to be connected to others and have that empathic connection. So while Proyas and his stellar production team have this world for us to see (one seemingly always at night but not without good reason!) and with this cast that knocks it out of the park, we get to see a little more and more behind the thematic curtains that come with tales drenched on dark city streets and in nightclubs and backrooms and with dames and cops and criminals... and also in the realm of beings from another dimension or something with their chamber of horrors.
Some of the over-stylization may work better for some than others, and by the time it gets to the conclusion things become so wild that it verges into almost being comical (the cgi nears being dated but I'll take it). It's certainly not a movie to watch if you're not ready to engage with it, but it's really among only a handful of movies I can think of (Eraserhead being one) where I felt like I was seeing a motion picture experience that approximated a nightmare.
The writing is excellent, original, mysterious, surprising, thrilling and dense. The performances are very solid, e.g Rufus Sewell as the paranoid leading man who suffers from memory-loss, Kiefer Sutherland as the peculiar doctor, John Hurt as the hard-headed detective, and Jennifer Connely as the ''wife'' of Sewell's character.
''Dark City'' has lots of remarkable scenes, but the one that stands out the most is the boat ride scene with Murdoch, Bumstead and Schreber. That scene hits you like a ton of bricks. However, it is quite expositional.
A tiny detail i noticed (that i loved, and i hope is an intention reference) was in an opening shot that approaches the hotel window behind which we meet Murdoch. The window is a circular dome in a rectangular frame. As clearly as possible, it looks like the "face" of Hal 9000 in "2001: A Space Odyssey" Hal was a computer that understood everything, except what it was to be human and have emotions. "Dark City" considers the same theme in a film that creates a completely artificial world in which humans teach themselves to be themselves.
The two (slight) problems i had is that the movie is original and has lots of creative ideas, but actually really isnt that original (it's not that Dark City itself was unoriginal, more that the themes expressed in it have been explored in a variety of movies since, and before the movie's been released. Possibly making it a transformative work for the time, but less impactful watching it as a modern viewer.?), it's like an assembly of a whole lot of other films, and Proyas has done that with meticulous precision.
Movies that come to mind that have a lot of the same elements are (Some will be movies that were released subsequently but still): Brazil, Metropolis, The Matrix, The Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The City of the Lost Children, M, Nosferatu, Inception, Memento, The Game, Total Recall, Blade Runner, The Twilight Zone, Kafka, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and maybe even a little bit of Batman and The Fifth Element. This doesnt make this movie bad at all, but it was quite obvious and noticed it quite some times throughout watching the film. The other slight problem being, that it can be quite confusing to watch and you really need to have your head in the game, otherwise you will be lost in the story. A second viewing will most likely be very rewarding.
''Dark City'' is not a story so much as an experience, it is a triumph of art direction, set design, cinematography, special effects and imagination.
From the instant the narrative takes off, viewers have no idea what's going on. Set in an unspecified universe, Dark City begins a a state of constant night with an empty dystopian darkness reminiscent of Blade Rnner (1982), as is the neo-noir nature of the story. The themes in the film seem very much influenced by Total Recall (1990), They Live (1987) and the works of H.G. Wells. There even seems to be elements that match that of The Matrix (1999) even though Alex Proyas' film precedes it by a year. The entire experience is packed full of themes, concepts and zany visuals which are thrown at the viewer one after the other with a convoluted story that strings it all together. Normally a narrative as twisted and unpredictable as Dark City would drive me crazy, but I loved it. The unpredictability of the film is amazing and it is able to hold an intense mood and fast pace the entire time while constantly finding ways to keep the mystery alive. In doing so they have to keep guessing without ever gaining wind of the infinite questions in the universe. Given that the protagonist is an amnesiac rediscovering the mysteries of the world around him, audiences find themselves going through the same experience as him where they know nothing and everything is a new kind of marvel. The mystery remains harnessed the entire time, for better and for worse. There is no denying that there is a hell of a lot to take in with Dark City and there are so many questions hurled at viewers that they will never all collect answers. Ironically one of the final lines in the film is "Now you know the truth" , when in actuality there is never any certainty in knowing if what you're experiencing is the truth. Frankly, the narrative in Dark City is one which will really polarize people because it is incredibly original yet executed in a manner like no other film before it. It's like a Terry Gilliam story with David Lynch energy and the same amount of indulgent surrealism that comes with the work of either auteur. There is even a touch of David Cronenberg in it, and the distinctive styles of these filmmakers crammed into one is both magnificent and manic, perhaps too much for many viewers to handle. It's an overwhelming experience to say the least and requires meticulous dedication to keep up with the philosophical science fiction concepts in the snappy dialogue as well as the manic energy. There is never a moment that the film slows down for people to stop and ask just what is going on, and that way it fails to get bogged down by slow melodrama. There is no breathing room in the film, and if audiences get caught up in the unstoppable rush of the tale then it can be a hell of an experience. If not, then it will just end up a confusing venture with a bunch of pretty pictures.
But no matter if viewers can grasp the intellectual reach of the story, everyone should be able to admire the pulp-cyberpunk setting of the tale. Any time I lost sight of what was going on I just took the chance to enjoy the visual experience of Dark City because it is a truly unforgettable one. With such rich distinction, Alex Proyas' eye for imagery is tenacious. Capitalizing on his Blade Runner-type setting, Alex Proyas ensures that Dark City manages to stand its ground as a science fiction neo-noir of its own right with a glorious 1940's style setting to provide viewers nostalgia to the heyday of cinema noir. The production design and costumes are glorious and the use of visual effects is brilliant, finding all kinds of colour in the dark palette of the feature. Given that Alex Proyas is the director of the critically acclaimed supernatural action thriller The Crow (1994) it is no surprise that he is able to create a dark and gritty universe set in the night-time streets once again in Dark City. However, the content is all his original work and he harnesses the spirit of it with his amazing style of direction.
And with snappy dialogue fuelling the dramatic pace of the feature, the cast of Dark City have nothing to do but succeed.
Rufus Sewell makes for a credible lead. Bereft of the notorious star power of co-stars Kiefer Sutherland and Jennifer Connelly, Rufus Sewell has nothing to do in Dark City but act. And that's exactly what he does. Staying perfectly in tune with the unpredictability of the story, Rufus Sewell carries an edge of confusion and determination from the very beginning. He never steps out of it but rather keeps pushing his energy forward through the many twists and turns of the story while showing more grip over the potential of his character as the story progresses. Rufus Sewell's leading effort carries rich interaction with the world around him with powerful physical and emotional results.
Kiefer Sutherland is the highlight of all the actors though. Having easily trasitioned from his teen idol status to legitimate adult material, Kiefer Sutherland manages to epitomize the insane mood of Dark City with every inch of dramatic strength in his bones. His line delivery carries a commanding power due to the rich fear in it and the manner in which he projects it on the other characters. Kiefer Sutherland never runs out of steam throughout Dark City but rather keeps himself actively involved with everything he encounters in his path, proving his dedication to even the most complicated narrative.
Jennifer Connolly uses restrained line delivery and the hypnotic grace of her beauty to benefit Dark City, and William Hurt is always a welcome presence.
Dark City will be as convoluted and twisted for some as it is striking and original for others, but audiences everywhere can appreciate Alex Proyas' ambition and stylish brilliance.