Monday, October 31, 2005

Visit Beautiful Dark City

Dark City has enjoyed a poor-man's version of The Shawhsank Redemption's afterlife. What? That is to say that both movies performed relatively poorly in theaters, only to receive its true due as a DVD. But while 'Shawshank' has so much post-theater popularity and buzz that it has skyrocketed to No. 2 on IMDB's Top 250, 'Dark City' (unranked, below such pantheon achievements as 'Pirates of the Caribbean' and 'Serenity') is confined to that small but coveted niche of 'if you know, then you'll know' cult status. It's not for everyone, but for those who can make it through the first act usually come to find one of the best films of the '90s.

'Dark City' actually received critical acclaim upon its release, with Roger Ebert going as far as saying it was the best movie of 1998. Others agreed, but few saw it. Part of it may be due with how it was marketed, I remember seeing the trailer and thinking it was a horror movie, which it clearly is not. Then there's the name, most of the population will pass on a title like 'Dark City,' especially when something like Beloved is also playing at the theater. I didn't see 'Dark City' until a few years later, buying it blindly, based mostly on Ebert's acclaims.

What I found was a film that is frustrating on first viewing, especially if there are other people in the room who keep asking just what the hell is going on, no this is a disc you need to watch alone. And if you're reading this wondering just what the hell I'm talking about, here's a quick introduction to 'Dark City':

A man wakes up in a bathtub with no knowledge of where, or who, he is. He soon finds out he is John Murdoch, wanted for a series of gruesome murders in this strange city where the sun never rises and everything stops at midnight. Oh it's a swell time at midnight, everyone goes to sleep and the whole landscape of the city shifts, people even seem to change identities. But not John, he's the only one unaffected. There's also the matter of these strange ghost-white men who are after him, and the curiousity of John being able to alter the physical reality around him by merely thinking about it. Somewhere in this city there's an answer for John, but he may not like what he finds.

'Dark City' is one of the few movies that is confusing by design. The audience is dropped into this world just as John is and we learn information at the same pace as him, which at the beginning can be very slow. Director Alex Proyas has deliberately sharp and jarring cuts early on, with the viewer having little time to observe this strange world before we are taken to a new location or character.

One of the first things you will notice about 'Dark City' is how goddamn beautiful it looks. Proyas uses natural light in every shot, that is to say that if a light is hitting a character, it is emanating from a source within the shot, such as a streetlamp or lightbulb. There is no 'moon spotlight' here, where there is a curious amount of light even when characters are in a forest at night. This allows Proyas to play with shadows and enhance the claustrophobic feel of the world he has created. There never seems to be any way out of 'Dark City' or anywhere that is safe because you can rarely see the end of an alley.

Ebert talks about this in his wonderful commentary, and I couldn't agree with it more: 'Dark City' is one of the few shining examples of sci-fi noir. There have been many attempts to merge these two genres, from Naked Lunch to Gattaca, but 'Dark City' succeeds because it isn't 'trying' to be noir, rather it seems it is a science fiction story elevated to noir through its unorthodox characters and pace. The prototype noir film has characters that are impossible to trust, regardless of whose side they are on and a consistent pace, one that never really slows down or speeds up much, often told out of sequence or in flashback. The best examples of this in 'Dark City' is Kiefer Sutherland's Dr. Schrieber, who seems to want to help John, but seems to revel in the pain and displeasure of others.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that Proyas creates a new standard for what a modern noir should look like. While his city is dark and black, it also bristles with color and jarring bright lights. The contrasts he creates with this are sometimes startling, such as when John wanders into the Automat, which is stark white and features bright colors sprinkled in (a plate of wiggling green jello never looked so good).

Yet the main reason 'Dark City' has gained such a devout following is its frighteningly original sci-fi story. It's interesting that The Matrix came out a year after 'Dark City,' because the stories are so similar. Both deal with a person born into a new reality, questioning what world we really live in and overthrowing the puppet masters of our supposed reality. 'Dark City' does it better, of course, because it doesn't need three movies to wrap up its plot, which is ultimately more satisfying. Proyas is wise to leave much to the viewers' imagination, since we are told little about The Strangers, or what they really thought they could gain from their experiments, nor are we really given an answer on why John developed his ability to tune.

There are small moments and characters that help elevate 'Dark City' onto a higher plateau: just about everything Mr. Hand says ('So we ... must become ... like him,' 'It lit up like a floating birthday cake'), the genuine sadness of Emma Murdoch and the brilliant special effects, which put substance over style (they are relatively spartan, using simple but striking morphing techniques).

The legacy of 'Dark City' is hard to predict, as its director hardly has a well-known body of work (ranging from The Crow to I, Robot). It may never achieve the popularity that it richly deserves, but that may be for the best, die-hard fans like myself will have to get by writing long-winded letters of appreciation like the one you just read.


Anonymous said...

Is Dark City the first instance of the 'Jennifer Connelly shot', where she is standing at the end of a long pier, facing away from the camera, and the sky is bright blue? The same shot shows up in Requiem for a Dream and, I've heard, The House of Sand and Fog.

Adam Ross said...

There might be something like that in 'Rocketeer,' though it would have Timothy Dalton in it as well and thus not count.