This visually stunning film from the director of The Crow manages, like Proyas' last feature, to create a wholly-separate universe in which the events of the story take place. In the case of Dark City, that's almost literally the case. John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up one day with no memory and discovers he is wanted as a serial killer. Confused but not believing himself capable of such horrible crimes, Murdoch goes on the run in an attempt to evade the police and in the hope that his memory will return and prove his innocence. But on his journey of self-discovery, Murdoch is increasingly bothered by persistent but seemingly normal issues. He cannot remember seeing the sun, he cannot find the beach on the outskirts of the city he used to visit as a child, parts of the city are not as he remembers them - they are different somehow. As he edges closer to unravelling the twisted riddle of his existence, Murdoch stumbles across a bizarre underworld controlled by a group of beings known as The Strangers. These shadowy figures possess the ability to stop time and alter reality through a process called Tuning. It is only the beginning of a terrifying and nightmarish discovery for Murdoch.
The most admirable achievement in Proyas' Kafka-esque creation is in getting so much of his original story and his and Lem Dobbs' screenplay so effectively onto the screen. Watching Dark City, I couldn't help but recall countless great SF novels I read as a child where the explanatory dénouement comes across as a shocking and brilliant revelation. It was exactly the same feeling for me when watching this. In a marvellous twist over standard narrative, the audience is dropped right into the middle of events with no knowledge or insight into either the past or the main character - on as uneven footing as Murdoch. Since we experience most of the opening half-hour sharing Murdoch's perspective we are as equally perplexed as he. His confusions, doubts, and discoveries are ours too - in real time. We don't have the comfort of knowing more than the protagonist - knowing which characters he can trust and believe, knowing when he is as isn't in danger. And for the patient, this is one of the film's strongest elements. With time the narrative opens up to include Murdoch's forgotten wife (Jennifer Connelly), a fastidious police detective (William Hurt) and a disturbed doctor (Kiefer Sutherland). We begin to see slightly more than Murdoch but Proyas is careful not to give too much away at any one time, creating a terrific sense of tension and disorientation not dissimilar to The Usual Suspects. Richard O'Brien also appears, as does Ian Richardson who brings a stately presence to the proceedings. In fact with O'Brien in mind, I heard someone describe the film as "a scary episode of the Crystal Maze", and although they didn't like Dark City, I wouldn't entirely disagree with their sentiments!
Proyas manages to show us things we have never seen before in a film and the impact of some images is staggering. Unfortunately, not all the other elements are as fresh and every genre fan will have reservations about the excessive similarities between Hellraiser's Cenobites and Dark City's Strangers. But it is a delight to see a genre film unafraid to force upon its audience an attention-demanding storyline and such an irregular structure. Those wanting nothing but action, explosions, clichés and the security of the overly familiar should look in the opposite direction. Those who demand more from a genre tailor-made (but frequently unlikely) to deliver the imaginative goods should embrace Dark City even with its minor imperfections.
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