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Site created 12/15/97.


review added: 8/18/98



Dark City
New Line Platinum Series - 1998 (1998) New Line

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Film Rating: B+
A visionary and richly constructed tale, revealed with great style and flair for detail by director Proyas. Not quite as important a film as some would have you believe - the lack of character empathy undercuts the overall effect. But visually stunning, with some new ideas and told with a fresh voice. Impressive.

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A/A
A very good 16x9 enhanced film transfer, with only minor compression artifacts visible, a wonderfully immersive Dolby Digital surround mix, and a terrific collection of supplemental materials (particularly the Ebert commentary).

Overall Rating: A-
If you're a fan of the tech-noir genre, or the art and craft of good filmmaking, Dark City is a must see. Proyas shows a talent matured even from his impressive debut film The Crow. And great extras make this a real value for your DVD dollar.

Specs and Features

96 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, pan & scan, single-layered, dual-sided, Snapper packaging, two commentary tracks featuring film critic Roger Ebert, director Alex Proyas, writers Lem Dobbs and David Goyer, director of photography Dariusz Wolski and production designed Patrick Tatopoulos, cast and crew bios, gallery of production artwork, theatrical trailer, Metropolis comparison (includes 1927 reviews by H.G. Wells and Weekly Variety), essay by Neil Gainman, "To Shell Beach" interactive game, film-themed animated menus (with background music), scene access (16 chapters), languages: English and French (DD 5.1), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Close Captioned

Review

From Alex Proyas, director of The Crow, comes this stylish and compelling vision of a nightmare metropolis, where reality is ever changing and even memory can't be trusted. Rufus Sewell plays John Murdoch, a man who awakens disoriented in a motel bathroom, to find the naked and bloodied body of a young woman. Suddenly, the phone rings, and a raspy voice warns, "There are people coming for you… you must leave now!" Murdoch flees the hotel, escaping into the darkly depressing city to discover that he's being hunted by the police. The authorities, led by the hard-boiled Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt), consider him their chief suspect in a string of serial murders. But there's a problem: Murdoch can't remember anything, including his own identity.

Enter one Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), whom we soon learn was the voice on the phone. He's looking for Murdoch too, and seems to hold the key to his memory loss. Enter also a sultry young nightclub singer (Jennifer Connelly), who claims to be Emma Murdoch, John's wife. But Murdoch doesn't remember her either. In fact, all he can recall are fragments… chief among them, a seaside resort called Shell Beach. This is a problem, for although almost everyone in this city remembers having been to Shell Beach, no one can remember how to get there.

Murdoch is also pursued by forces of an other-worldly nature, with more sinister motives. Right from the start, we're told in a brief narration (by Dr. Schreber, the one person who seems to know what's really going on here) that a dying race of beings ("as old as time itself") has come to Earth seeking a way to save themselves. These Strangers, as they're known, live in a mysterious underworld beneath the city, and have enlisted Dr. Schreber to conduct experiments on the city's inhabitants. Experiments that rob people of their memories, and alter their identities. Experiments designed to see what makes us tick.

Dark City is a highly derivative work, incorporating elements of classic science fiction, 1940s film-noir, and even elements of fantasy and horror: Fritz Lang's Metropolis, the modern, tech-noir classic Blade Runner, or even Forbidden Planet, with its vision of an artificial world constructed by ancient alien technology. The Strangers themselves recall nightmare images of the vampire Nosferatu, Pinhead from Clive Barker's Hellraiser, and even the Borg from Star Trek, with their soulless, unified consciousness. But Dark City combines these elements with a new voice, to create something fresh… a richly developed world, unlike any we've seen before. This is an urban landscape that evokes the dark, decaying grandeur of Gotham from Tim Burton's Batman. But while Gotham seems flat and two-dimensional, this city is alive and vibrant. It is ever-evolving, populated by fractured characters, and subject to the Strangers' constant 'tuning'. Nothing here is simple… nothing quite as it appears.

Proyas' direction is terrific - stylish and relentless in its attention to detail. The film develops at a frenetic pace, the images coming fast and furious, audio cues and music threading hypnotically throughout. Each image is deliberately constructed, each movement carefully staged, to heighten the overall impact. Like the panels of a comic book, or graphic novel, the result is a highly stylized and appropriately artificial presentation. The frame is lush with detail, showcasing the impressive production design of Patrick Tatopoulos. The colors and textures are rich, the use of light and shadow inventive. Witness the scene which first introduces us to Murdoch (chapter 2), to see what I mean. The swinging overhead light, the tiled bathroom floor, the goldfish gasping for air, the flashes of memory, the Strangers' approach down the corridor… each shot building upon the next to great effect.

The performances by Sewell, Connelly and Sutherland are generally good, but I particularly liked William Hurt as the detective, with his own personal measure of angst. All the performances are quite subdued, even stilted, with the actors creating characters that never seem quite comfortable with themselves. This is a deliberate choice, and in any other film, it wouldn't work. But given the artificial 'reality' of the world depicted here, the effect is quite appropriate. My only complaint with Dark City, is that this effect works perhaps too well - the humans in this world all seem to walk as if in a trance. There is an air of hopelessness about them, as if they know their lives are merely an exercise in futility, without understanding exactly why. I would have preferred helplessness to hopelessness. As an observer, I found myself sympathizing with these characters, without really empathizing with them, thus undermining a sense of purpose to the narrative, and lessening the impact of the conclusion. This complaint aside, Dark City is still an impressive work.

The overall quality of this New Line Platinum Series DVD is equally impressive. The 16x9 enhanced widescreen transfer is clear and crisp, with only a few minor instances of visible compression artifacts - quite a feat for so dark and murky a film. The worst artifacting can be seen in the opening shot, as the camera pans down from the stars, through a layer of dark clouds (always suspect to MPEG 2 errors), to the skyline of the city itself. The soundtrack and Dolby Digital surround sound mix is wonderfully immersive, creating a rich sound field that perfectly matches the visuals. And the extras here are fantastic.

There are film essays, a comparison to Metropolis (including an original 1927 review of the film by H.G. Wells!) , a very good theatrical trailer, lots of production notes, cast and crew bios, and even a gallery of concept artwork and design sketches. There is also an interactive game you can play with your remote ("To Shell Beach"). It works quite well, but unfortunately has a less than satisfying payoff for playing - a brief animation sequence depicting the film's climatic battle. I would have much preferred perhaps an alternating ending, or access to deleted scenes as a reward.

The audio commentary track featuring the director, writers and designers is interesting, but I almost always find commentary tracks with so many people on a single track disjointed. It becomes difficult to tell who is talking. As strange as it may sound, in the end, I almost didn't want to hear what Proyas had to say anyway. His filmmaking is so refreshing, that I'd prefer to know him by his work alone. Much more interesting to me was the Roger Ebert commentary (yes, that Ebert). When he isn't wagging his thumb up or down on syndicated television, Ebert teaches film theory, and I found his comments and point-of-view to be quite fascinating.

Bottom line

Dark City perhaps isn't for everyone, and it isn't quite as visionary or important as some critics (Ebert included) would profess. But it is a piece of impressive filmmaking, and it clearly stands out as one of the better examples of its genre. Proyas is a real talent - a craftsman in the purest sense of the word. His loving attention to detail, and fresh point-of-view make Dark City interesting from beginning to end. And in a time when so few science fiction films have anything new to say, Dark City explores some new ground. I'd guess that if you think you might like it... you probably will. Recommended.

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com




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