In the winter of 1998, I saw Dark City in the theater, and it threw open the doors of my imagination like no film before it and few films since. I was one of the few. Released to mixed reviews and a confused marketing campaign — the studio, New Line Cinema, didn’t know how to promote its peculiar fusion of sci-fi, film noir, and existentialism, so they sold it as a horror movie — the film earned a meager $14 million at the United States box office and only $27 million worldwide. Were it not for the rapturous recommendation of critic Roger Ebert, I might not have seen it at all.
But the film has found a second life on DVD, where it has developed a cult following. I have seen it many times. I credit it for fully igniting my love of the movies and even incorporated it into a term paper I wrote for a college English class. The subject of the paper I don’t remember, and I don’t think it mattered at the time, either. If given the latitude, I would have written about Dark City for a class about underwater basket-weaving.
On July 29, 2008, more than a decade after its theatrical premiere, New Line Home Video released Dark City: The Director’s Cut, which restores 11 minutes of footage. It represents the more complete vision of director and co-writer Alex Proyas, though I confess I prefer the original cut. At 111 minutes, the extended version is 11% longer and about that much slower. The opening two-thirds of the film are paced more contemplatively. It stalks and wanders curiously, like a detective story, where the original progressed with the urgency of a thriller. Our hero is besieged by villains from the very first scene, but in the director’s cut his journeying plays a little too casually.
Other additions are more distractions than enhancements. There are new scenes involving the daughter of a prostitute, which add little to the narrative or its themes. Other scenes are extended with additional dialogue that adds too much exposition to a story steeped in exquisite mystery. I don’t wish to be a hard-line purist; I have developed years of familiarity with the material, to the point where additions may inevitably feel like intrusions. I will watch the director’s cut more times before I come to any lasting conclusions.
Rufus Sewell stars as John Murdoch, an amnesiac who wakes up into events already well in motion. He is naked in a hotel bathtub. There is a slain woman by the bed. The phone rings. A man on the line warns him that someone is coming and he must flee. Not knowing who or where he is, he hurtles through a crisis he doesn’t understand.
There are aliens called the Strangers, a group of pale-faced men in black cloaks whose design was inspired by Nosferatu. They control the city, but how? And why? At midnight everyone falls asleep. Buildings rise up, stretch, twist, are reformed. People are placed about like dolls. Murdoch watches it happen.
Like the best science fiction, Dark City uses its futuristic story to investigate the here and now. The Strangers in their machinations have undertaken to find the human soul. What makes us endure? Are we the sum of our recollections? Or is there more, something imperceptible hidden down deep where the Strangers can’t get to it? This is a profoundly philosophic work, experimenting with human nature as much as the Strangers are and finding that we are at once flexible and immutable, able to adapt to new conditions but containing something unmalleable — an intractable human constant that cannot be accessed through the mind or the body. This is not a theological concept of the soul, per se, but the acknowledgment of a stubborn individuality, the curious pushing outward against our boundaries, a drive that cannot be isolated like a gene but is fundamentally human.
The technical achievements are breathtaking. Like the city, the film is an amalgam of eras, constructed out of elements of film history, from ‘40s film noir to silent-era German expressionism. The cinematography by Dariusz Wolski is meticulous, using strong artificial light to create deep shadows and contrasts that achieve an atmosphere of otherworldly foreboding. Art directors Richard Hobbs and Michelle McGahey evoke mystery using deep, ominous spaces; everything from train stations to alleyways to a doctor’s office waiting room are designed with such detail that they make the world seem complete, tangible, almost lived-in despite its eerie anachronism. Proyas favors low-angle shots that emphasize ceilings, which intensifies the film’s claustrophobic tension. The musical score by Trevor Jones is exquisitely grand.
I envy anyone coming to Dark City for the first time. I wax analytical about its themes and aesthetic, but there’s nothing like the wide-eyed exhilaration of unraveling its story anew. I still remember sitting in the theater, staring up at the screen in a delirious trance.
On the DVD are two new documentaries: the extensive making-of featurette Memories of Shell Beach, and Architecture of Dreams, in which film professors Vivian Sobchak and Dana Polan, along with Ebert, Proyas, and co-writer Lem Dobbs, discuss the film from in-depth theoretical perspectives. They are required viewing for any fan of the film. For the uninitiated, Dark City is worth viewing in either of its forms. It’s a masterpiece.