Four years ago, director Alex Proyas proved he could turn a standard revenge premise into an enticing film by invoking style and atmosphere into The Crow. Now comes Dark City, advertised as the latest work "from the director of The Crow"—a fairly accurate description. Like with his last film, Proyas has a specific look and tone that he aims for, and it's evident in almost every frame.
Dark City is certainly another skillful exercise in style and aesthetics. But with this film Proyas also manages to go beyond pure mood by supplying a more fundamentally challenging story. Co-written and co-produced by Proyas, Dark City comes off like a carefully thought-out story tailored specifically for the styles and talents of a single director—rather than an urban thriller that happened to succeed because it was focused through a particular director's vision, the way The Crow seemed to be.
The general idea behind Dark City is a search for reality. It's about characters who believe they're living normal lives but are really under constant surveillance, where the watchers do far more than just watch.
The watchers are a group of alien beings simply called "The Strangers." As the film opens, Kiefer Sutherland introduces himself as Dr. Schreber, a scientist who has betrayed humanity by helping the Strangers conduct secret experiments within the film's mysterious city setting. The Strangers are the last of a dying society with the unique ability to freeze time and focus their telepathic powers to alter reality, a process they call "tuning."
Every night at midnight the Strangers stop time and rearrange factual details, often changing things around in extreme ways. With the help of Schreber's expertise on the human mind, they routinely alter people's memories and identities, turning the poor into the rich, transforming mild-tempered people into murderers, and then watching how these subjects go on to live their lives.
The nature of this dark and mysterious city and what the Strangers seek I cannot reveal, but the premise asks some compelling questions about the human soul. One thoughtful idea the film toys with is whether an individual's personality is inherent, or if it's simply comprised of the collective sum of his or her memories. It's not every day a film these days will stop and ask such questions.
Dark City's central character is a man named John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) who wakes up one night with no memory, only to find that he is wanted for murder. Murdoch slowly discovers that he has the unique ability to "tune," which makes him both feared and desired by the Strangers. Murdoch suffers the simultaneous hardships of trying to avoid a detective (William Hurt) who is investigating his apparent crimes, evading the Strangers who are looking to either harness or destroy his powers, and making sense out of why he can't remember his life or even his own wife (Jennifer Connelly).
Some of the film's most interesting passages are moments when characters puzzle over events they don't understand—and struggle to make sense at why they can't understand them. They wrestle at length over logical points that in any known reality would seem obvious. In this city, however, such glaring inconsistencies are accepted truths. Why is it no one can remember the way to Shell Beach, which is supposedly just outside the city? And why is it perpetually night? Everyone seems to know what daylight looks like, yet no one can remember the last time they saw it.
The plot is complicated and difficult to summarize—filled with bits and pieces of character history that require subsequent clues to prove relevant—yet it makes a surprising amount of sense as it unfolds, effectively utilizing elements of fantasy in its mystery.
In the meantime, Proyas seems to revel in setting the visuals of every scene. There's rarely a shot that doesn't feel surreal and unusually dark. The extensive production design and elaborate interiors beg attention, especially the underground area where the Strangers live. A lot of this is pure technical showmanship, but it works very well—the result is ominous and captivating. Proyas is a filmmaker with a knack for creating mood based on visuals, and he exploits those talents in this film.
But Proyas also has his storytelling method working in his favor. None of the characters in Dark City are especially deep or vivid. They're cold, distant and difficult to make an emotional connection with. But I suspect that's precisely the point. The residents of this city are at the mercy of arbiters who have an agenda far beyond witnessing the typical, mundane human existence. Everyone in this city is an unwitting pawn, detached from reality in a way they aren't even aware of, being manipulated by people they will never see or understand. They think they're living their lives, but their actions are ultimately arbitrary and meaningless. The overtones are strikingly existential.
Under the circumstances of this brooding story, I believe the hyperkinetic ending may be a little excessive considering how reserved Dark City generally keeps its tone. But never mind; this film is a superb example of how science fiction has such fascinating possibilities. Dark City is an imaginative movie that made me think, and had me absorbed pretty much the whole way through.