There is a type of movie that messes with your mind. You sit there and watch intently following the story when all of a sudden it seems that reality has lost all meaning and the plot of the story just pushed you down a rabbit hole. In recent years fans of science fiction point to ‘Inception’ as the prime example of twisting reality but back in 1998 a movie was released that played with perception and laid the ground work for spinning tops in dreams, ‘Dark City’. We base our lives on the old adage, "seeing is believing", trusting that the images in front of us represent reality. Our mind can only interpret what our senses detect. We trust it as reality simply because we have no alternative. Alex Proyas, the screenwriter and director of this film has several films where he playfully turns the images before the audience around keeping us off balance. In ‘The Crow’ he takes on the line between life and death using it to tell a story of justice and vengeance that reaches out from the grave. With his rendition of ‘I, Robot’ Proyas begins with a concept from Science fiction icon, Isaac Asimov and utilizes to weave an action film with a philosophical core; does it mean to be human? Several themes are incorporated in ‘Dark City’ including the ultimate question that has kept philosophers in business for millennium; ‘how do you know what is real?"
The story begins as a man, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), awakens into a nightmare. He is in a bathtub in a cheap hotel when he receives a phone call from Dr. Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), who urgently advises him to leave immediately. A group of men are on their way to apprehend him. John has amnesia, unaware of where he is or how he got there. As he turns to flee he catches sight of a young woman brutally slaughtered. There is a ritualistic look to the scene made worse by the bloody knife next to the body. Moments after escaping the men show up.
He begins to search for clues as to his identity ultimately discovering he is John Murdoch and he has a beautiful wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly). She is a lounge singer and currently concerned over his sudden disappearance. It turns out that the police are also looking for him. Lead detective inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) believes Murdoch might be somehow involved in a recent series of murders. Murdoch cannot remember killing anyone which leaves him with the concern he might have performed the murders in some form of fugue state. The men that almost captured him at the hotel are referred to as ‘The Strangers’, dressed with long black overcoats they are organized in their efforts to find him. While they are chasing him Murdoch inadvertently discovers he possesses psychokinetic abilities adding to the already mountainous mysteries he has to cope with.
Dr. Schreber is Murdoch’s guide and dominant source of exposition for the audience. The city is in perpetual night; no one can remember the last time the sun shown over the cityscape. Every midnight the entire population of the city is rendered unconscious. During city begins to change, buildings morphing in a surrealistic fashion, Streets move, some buildings shorten while others expand, a family in a modest dining room are suddenly in a grand dining hall of a mansion. As the city grinds from one form to its next the Strangers are busy moving the people around, redressing them for lives in their new surroundings. The Strangers refer to the process as ‘Tuning’ and it is initiated from an underground lair, there hundreds of them gather making an odd sound as a device effects the changes. Murdoch finds out he is from a coastal town called Shell Beach but is blank on any details. One of the Strangers, Mr. Hand (Richard O'Brien) injects on of the others with a large syringe that captains memories for Murdoch. The Strangers are revealed to be aliens that are performing experiments on human emotions. They are methodically placing their test subjects in controlled environments and extracting their memories. They brought in Dr. Schreber for his unique talent in mixing the serums a human collaborator. He has an individual perspective foreign to the collective mind of the Stranger hive. Their parasitic race using the corpses of their host but they are themselves dying out. These experiments are a desperate effort to survive.
Rufus Sewell is one of those actors that show up in the most unusual projects never disappointing. Here he channels a certain every man quality necessary to allow the audience to identify with, especially necessary with such a bizarre story. Another means the filmmaker uses to connect the audience to the characters is the way he wrapped in a familiar genre, film noir. There is a classic forties look and feel that you almost remember it in black and white. Greatly enhancing the noir effect is the incredible performance by Kiefer Sutherland. He embodies the sneaky creepiness of Peter Lorrie going so far as to affect a strikingly similar cadence to his speech. He holds the story together helping Swell to ground the insanity with remarkable performances. Ever film noir needs the femme fatale and the memorable lawman. Jennifer Connelly fills her part and the sultry evening gown keeps the archetype alive and well. William Hurt initially comes across as the straightforward detective but thanks to some imaginative quirks and the nuances Hurt adds the Inspector becomes a part of the puzzle. It almost seems that Richard O'Brien threw on the overcoat of Mr. Hand after a performance of ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’. The same unearthly persona he created for Rif Raf translates perfectly here. He is so identified with that role that some may overlook the many years of diverse roles he successfully took on.
In the theatrical version of the movie there was an initial voice over that was removed for the director’s cut. Something similar was done with the famous Sci-Fi noir, ‘Blade Runner’. In both cases I prefer the theatrical cut, unusual for my usual support of the director’s vision. This voice over was one of the trademarks of the classic film noir mystery. Removing it strips a defining characteristic from the movie. It may seem like a traditional murder mystery at first but within a brief time changes like the skyline into a deeply thought provoking means to ponder the question of reality and perception. It would be disconcerting enough to wake up in a hotel room with amnesia and a slashed corpse but to run into the street where reality shifts as you watch is certain to stretch out you mind in unimaginable directions.