Friday, November 30, 2007

Dark City

(1998) ****

I figured since I was watching all the Hellraiser flicks I should watch Dark City, as the charcters of The Strangers so obviously boost the Cenobite design. Derivative as they may be, I like The Strangers better -- they don't have those off-putting, sometimes incongruous body mutilations, and they only wear their bizarre leather outfits when they're at home beneath Dark City.

When they're at work in the streets above, they take on the noir-ish look of the city itself, sporting outfits of deliciously stylish menace.

Better still, they get around by flying -- not Superman style, but standing up in midair, co-opting the unsettling surrealness of Rene Magritte.

I'm bothering with this detailed visual summary because Dark City is so deliberately rich in that regard. Each shot is like a postcard from the era of Film Noir, which can't be beat as a background for a sci-fi story like this one (and which makes Dark City also derivative of Blade Runner, which is naturally awesome). As in both The Crow and I, Robot, director Alex Proyas never quite manages to make his urban settings feel fully fleshed-out and real, but in this movie the pasteboard qualities are perfectly placed.

The city is a fake, created by The Strangers and populated by ignorant abductees. There is no daytime there, and every twelve hours everybody falls asleep so their secret masters can make changes in their grand experiment. The changes are twofold. Selected citizens are imprinted with new identities, complete with new sets of memories injected through a syringe. Meanwhile, the Strangers' collected telekinetic powers (referred to as "Tuning") are focused to grow new buildings and form new streets.

One of the cute details is that The Strangers will manually adjust certain elements of new configurations, which would seem uneccesary given their reality-manipulating powers. I found it quaint and appealing, as in the Watchmen comic when Dr. Manhattan would telekinetically dress himself but still zip up his own fly.

The story involves John Murdoch, who suddenly becomes The Strangers' most important subject when he subconsciously develops the power to Tune himself. When this happens, he throws off his yet-to-be-implanted memories and The Strangers' power over him. Initially this gains him nothing but supreme confusion, made all the more dire as his new identity was to be that of a serial killer, and his new part comes complete with a dead hooker in his hotel room.

On the run from the police and the mysteriously pale bald men in coats, he struggles to piece together what the frak is going on. The nightmare only gets stranger when everyone around him falls asleep, which is unsettling enough before he sees new buildings start to twist and grow out of the ground. This happens twice in the course of his desperate wanderings, and the progression is one of my favorite things about this movie. The first time he just watches in astonishment as everything stops and then changes. The second time there's an actual chase scene through the shifting cityscape. I think that's just brilliant.

Dark City is one of the better simulacra flicks that were coming out in the late 90's, like Truman Show, Existenz and The Matrix. It's got some delightful performances, particuarly that of Richard O'Brien as Mr. Hand. O'Brien is best remembered as Riff Raff the spooky butler in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and his stylish creepiness carries the whole vibe of this movie. Also great is William Hurt as well-meaning detective Frank Bumstead, whose puppydog sad features effortlessly wear the movie's noir trappings.

However, there are some weak links in this flick. Kiefer Sutherland plays the quasi-mad scientist in The Strangers' employ, and while he's essential to the plot, his affected delivery is quite grating. I can't tell if it's his fault or the director's, but the wheezing take on his character tends to knock you out of the movie a bit.

And the big downer is the movie's climax, which doesn't completely disappoint but involves a sharp dip in quality. Don't get me wrong, the movie is fantastic, but it's cooking along like a potential five star movie right up to, and even a minute into, the final confrontation -- then it gets all pear-shaped. It turns into a sloppy mishmash of noise and action that you probably have to watch twice if you want to fully get what happens. It's really too bad.

I suppose I should also point out that JPX's least favorite actress Jennifer Connelly is in this, although her brand of monotone emotional styling actually fits fine with the movie she's in.

Are you looking at my eyebrows?

In closing, I'll point out that I'm not using the word "derivative" as an indictment in this review. I recall when this came out a number of reviews pointed out the movie's obvious influnces, and assumed that doing so discredited the movie itself. I find that blunt equation to be rather juvenile and naive; after a century of moviemaking, finding a completely original idea is next to impossible. But finding new ways to approach familiar concepts is something I believe will always be possible, and that is where our attention should be drawn. Dark City is a perfect example, and well worth your time.

1 comment:

DCD said...

I remember thinking this movie was very cool when it first came out.