*****REALITY-BENDING SPOILERS AHEAD!*****
The first I’d heard of director Alex (“The Crow”) Proyas’ “Dark City” was sometime in late 1997, where I might’ve seen the trailer and filed it away to be ignored later in my younger, stimulus-addled brain. Sadly, I was ‘one of those people’ who didn’t show this movie the proper support when it first came to theaters in February of 1998, though I do remember feeling a few glimmers of interest. Well, a lot of life changing-stuff happened to me in 1998, and I got married a year later. My wife is into sci-fi/fantasy as well (though our specific tastes differ, of course), and shortly after we were married, we bought “Dark City” on DVD. At the time, this was the theatrical cut, which was the only version available.
Not surprisingly, my wife and I enjoyed “Dark City” very much, though I recognized a few minor editorial flaws; specifically, the exposition-heavy opening where the biggest mysteries are largely solved for the viewer before the movie gets underway. Some of the supporting characters were a bit lacking as well (even for living ciphers whose lives are being continually rewritten). However, the thick, nightmare-noir atmosphere that permeated every frame of this richly photographed film transcended such minor deficits (cinematographer Dariusz Wolski is a genius). Despite my own nit-picking, the movie was fundamentally sound. With some fine ‘tuning’ (forgive the pun) it could even be a modern classic. I certainly preferred “Dark City” over its later, more popular rival, “The Matrix,” as I felt “Dark City” told its own similar story more efficiently and effectively.
Rumors of a forthcoming director’s cut of “Dark City” began percolating in interviews with the dissatisfied director Alex Proyas, and I eventually bought the new version on Blu-Ray sometime after it was released. However, with a large backlog of items on my too-long watchlist, I’m afraid I once again didn’t give this underrated masterpiece the love it deserved…until now.
Last weekend I broke out my trusty HD digital projector and 7 ft./2 meter collapsible screen and gave myself the keys to “Dark City” once again…
Note: I won’t get into each of the many differences between the theatrical version and Director’s Cut–only noting a few changes when relevant. The version I’m choosing to focus on is the Director’s Cut. However, I’ve linked an article detailing all the specific differences between both versions following the middle section of this column.
The single biggest difference between the theatrical cut and Director’s Cut is the opening of the film. In the original, we hear narration of Dr. Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland, in a Peter Lorre-esque performance) detailing the plan of the alien “Strangers” to study humans and save their dying race. Schreber essentially solves the mystery for the viewer before it ever gets started. This piece of admittedly vital exposition is now moved to a later point in the story, where it belongs. The much-improved Director’s Cut opens with a quick, muted shot of Schreber before cutting to John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell). This key difference lets the viewer unwrap the mystery gradually, without so much awkward upfront exposition.
Note: This big change between the two versions reminded me of the changes made to the 2007 Final Cut of “Blade Runner” vs. its similarly narrated 1982 theatrical version.
The symbol of John Murdoch’s fingerprint, which we see in the opening credits, is reflected in the circular rat maze of Dr. Schreber (the maze being a metaphor of the city itself) . We then cut to John, awakening in a bathtub full of dingy water. The suddenly amnesiac John has no idea who or where he is, and before he can properly get his bearings, he receives a cryptic call from Dr. Schreber urging him to move on, as a mysterious group of bald, trenchooat-wearing ‘Strangers’ are pursuing him. Grabbing clothes and a few essentials, he leaves.
Note: The production design of the movie is an elegant mix of gumshoe detective-film noir, stark German expressionism (influences of 1922’s “Nosferatu” and 1927’s “Metropolis” in particular), with an enigmatic dash of Kafka thrown in as well (“The Trial”). The vague, mid-20th century look of the city itself reflects multiple time-periods, which makes perfect sense, given that the architecture of the ‘city’ (a maze-like spaceship made for studying humans) is drawn from a mishmash of memories stolen from its human subjects.
In fleeing, John discovers the remains of a murdered prostitute named May (Melissa George) of whom he has flashes of memory. May’s body carved with the symbol of what appears to be a fingerprint–or a rat’s maze. He also realizes that May has a daughter as well, who may be the key to solving her murder. With his memory gone, John is worried that he might actually be the murderer after all. Before John can get his bearings, his mysterious pursuers close in…
Note: The amnesiac on the run is an old film noir story trope, and was even remade only a couple of years after “Dark City” with Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” (2000). However, the trope works better in the Director’s Cut now that the connection between John and the “Strangers” is made more cryptic at the beginning of the film, as it should’ve been.
Details began to emerge about John’s life as he studies his wallet; he learns he has a beautiful wife named Emma (Jennifer Connelly) and he also has a strange compulsion to a billboard featuring an advertisement for a nearby resort town called “Shell Beach.” He later learns that he might’ve grown up there, at least according to a man named Karl Harris (John Bluthal), who may be the uncle who raised the orphaned John. Karl also keeps a collection of John’s color childhood photos from Shell Beach as well; photos taken in daylight–something John has yet to see in this mysterious city.
Note: The significance of John’s lure to the mythical “Shell Beach” is understandable; it’s a piece of his past, as well as a place drenched in sunlight and water–both of which, we learn, are anathema to the Strangers; sunlight kills them, and water shields humans from their mental probing.
The Strangers close in on John as he contemplates a billboard of Shell Beach; these dark-clad Strangers, bald and ghastly pale, even include a seeming child in their ranks as well. As they attempt to capture him, John instinctively and reflexively uses strong projections of psionic mental energy against them–causing the lead Stranger to announce “He can tune!” John’s power even forces a Stranger’s controlling parasite to vacate its human corpse-host body.
Note: The tuning power FX are digitally augmented from the 1998 version for the Director’s Cut. Now, before any younger fans dismiss John’s psionic powers as a ripoff of “The Matrix”, they should bear in mind that “Dark City” was originally slated for release in October of 1997, and was eventually released in February of 1998–over a full year before the Wachowski’s “Matrix” hit US theaters in the spring of 1999.
Later, we see the Strangers gathering to discuss their ‘John problem’; he is an apparent mutant within the ranks of their human subjects within their city-laboratory habitat; a mutation who now shares their ability to “tune” the shape of reality. The Strangers’ leader, Mr. Book (Ian Richardson) suspects that John may be the culmination of their experiments; the human who might carry on the genetic information of their dying species. Working with the Strangers to understand human psychology is the human Dr. Schreber, who is playing both sides–aiding the Strangers while also gathering critical intel on their weaknesses, such as sunlight (another nod to 1922’s “Nosferatu”) and water.
Note: The Strangers’ own habitat below the surface of their human zoo above is a magnificent modern reification of German Expressionism; the art movement defined by heavy shadows, nightmarish characters and strong, severe angles. Examples of this genre in cinema include the examples of “Nosferatu” (1922), “M” (1931) and “Metropolis” (1927); the latter two directed by Fritz Lang. Other examples include “The Man Who Laughs” (1928) and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920). That movement was also a huge influence on filmmaker Tim Burton, as evidenced by “Edward Scissorhands” (1990), “Batman Returns” (1992), “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993) and “Frankenweenie” (2012).
With the city’s human police looking for the serial killer, circumstances of the arranged murders frame John, including a magnified image of his own fingerprint, painted in the victims’ blood–the same fingerprint echoed in Dr. Schreber’s maze. Meanwhile, John’s estranged wife Emma continues her career singing at a nightclub (would there be any other kind of club in “Dark City”?). We see the stunning, blue-eyed brunette singing a torch song version of “Sway”, a Dean Martin staple song from 1953.
Note: Jennifer Connelly first came onto my radar in the underrated 1991 film, “The Rocketeer”, where she played another character who looked and seemed perfectly at home in the past (1938 Los Angeles, in the case of “The Rocketeer”). I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a bit smitten with her in those days. Connelly had a timelessness about her that made her a great fit with Alex Proyas’ vision for “Dark City.”
The city police, led by Inspector Frank Bumstead (the late William Hurt) are still seeking out John as the prime suspect (by design). John manages to meet with his ‘wife’ who believes him when he says he didn’t kill anyone. She’s also feeling lingering guilt over the ‘affair’ she had while they were married (another Stranger-induced manipulation). Bumstead questions Emma, but is also not entirely convinced of what is ‘true’ anymore. Bumstead is also nagged by the realization that it was his mother’s birthday recently, and yet he has almost no memory of her whatsoever. He’s slowly and methodically beginning to see pieces of a large and very bizarre puzzle.
Note: The late William Hurt (1950-2022) gives a performance as Bumstead that is muted and appropriate. Despite the fact that he’s dressed like a character out of a Raymond Chandler novel, he doesn’t act like a Humphrey Bogart impersonator. This is a critical difference that fits the story, since everyone is ‘reprogrammed’ by the Strangers at midnight (assisted by Dr. Schreber), often going from one life to another. Bumstead might’ve been a shoe salesman in his last cycle, or a psychiatrist. Now forced to wear a gun and a badge, he is playing the role that’s been assigned to him; following a trail laid out (by design) to ‘stop the bad guy’. Given Bumstead’s dawning awareness and confusion, Hurt is very well cast as a detective who doesn’t quite feel the part.
Meanwhile, the Strangers are confounded as to how John Murdoch is able to resist their ‘sleep’ command and reprogramming, like all the other inhabitants of their city/laboratory. During the reprogramming phase, a wide-awake John (under the guidance of Dr. Schreber) sees the city being ‘remade’ all around him. Like the rooms in a dream, physical spaces are changed, bridges are rebuilt, rooms are remade, with temporarily forgotten staircases and doors suddenly leading to nowhere. Looking in the window of a bickering couple, John observes them going from being an impoverished pair of working-class tenement dwellers to a pair of high society snobs deciding the guest list for their next party.
Note: The visual FX of the city remaking itself are an elegant mix of largely practical miniatures combined with a bit of CGI to make the illusions flow a bit better. Even watching in full darkness on a 7 ft. screen, the effects (largely untampered with from the 1998 release) still hold up very well. The bickering poor couple who are transformed into rich snobs also supply one of the movie’s rare bits of physical comedy, as we see them instantly fall asleep during a midnight supper, with their suddenly-unconscious heads falling face-first, mid-argument, into their soup bowls.
Forced to help the Strangers, Dr. Schreber agrees to implant one of the Strangers, Mr. Hand (Richard O’Brien) with the memories of John’s ‘life experiences’ gleaned from the last cycle, before the unsuccessful attempt to transform him into a serial killer. It’s hoped that Mr. Hand, armed with John’s experiences, will be able to lead his fellow Strangers to him. With Dr. Schreber aiding John as well, it’s not clear (until sometime later) where the doctor’s loyalties lie.
Note: The character of Dr. Daniel Schreber may well be Kiefer Sutherland’s greatest onscreen performance, as he is one of the last actors I would ever think to cast as a hunched, broken, passive-aggressive shell of a man. Schreber’s deformed right eye, stooped posture, halting speech and general vibe of poor health is in stark contrast to the actor’s late 1980s “Young Guns”/”Lost Boys” action/sex symbol image. Dr. Schreber was clearly inspired by the character actor Peter Lorre from such movies as the aforementioned movie “M” and the noir-thriller “The Maltese Falcon” (1941); yet another stylistic inspiration for “Dark City.”
Armed with John’s memories, Mr. Hand begins shadowing John’s footsteps, even going so far as to stalk Emma, who is standing near the city’s canal, where she and John had first met. In an unsettling moment, Mr. Hand even speaks the same flirtatious words that John spoke to Emma during their first meeting, and she recognizes the words, even if they’re coming from an incongruously pale, ghostly white face under a hat and dark coat. This uneasy and unlikely ‘coincidence’ leaves Emma to suspect that her reality might be a fabrication as well. Like Inspector Bumstead, she’s also beginning to wonder some very basic things, such as why there is no daylight, or even a recent memory of daylight.
Note: Mr. Hand’s disturbing flirtation with Emma sparks a lot of questions; is he feeling John’s emotions and attraction for her as well? Mind you, “Mr. Hand” is little more than a slimy alien parasite occupying the body of a human cadaver. Does he smell like death or decay? The Strangers are a dying race themselves, and they choose to occupy bodies of recent human dead in order to study them as a means of perpetuating themselves. In some ways, this backstory of theirs reminds me of the “Talosians” from Star Trek’s original pilot, “The Cage.”
The Talosians were also a physically-atrophied, dying species who sought to perpetuate themselves by using humanity as surrogates with which to revitalize their race. Like the Strangers, the Talosians’ primary defense (and offense) was their formidable mental power. In the case of John Murdoch, he has achieved the very thing the Talosians feared might happen with Captain Pike in time–that he might somehow acquire their mental power, and harness it for himself. In the case of John and the Strangers, that question is no longer academic.
Eventually, John is taken in by Inspector Bumstead’s team, but Bumstead himself no longer believes that John is the killer. Meeting with Emma and Dr. Schreber, they agree to Schreber’s request to go to the city’s canal to discuss their situation. The water of the canal is feared by the Strangers, as they are unable to read the minds of human subjects within it (like the myth of hunting dogs thrown off the scent of prey by a river or stream). Schreber, John and Bumstead take a boat into the canal and it is in this scene where we finally hear Schreber’s exposition about the nature of the Strangers (this exposition of Schreber’s was heard as opening narration in the 1998 theatrical cut). The doctor also gives John a syringe containing the secrets of his original identity as well as his memories of Shell Beach. John tucks it away in his coat pocket…
With Inspector Bumguard now fully up to speed on exactly who (or what) they’re dealing with, John is released from custody. He asks the Inspector if he could remember how to get to Shell Beach. Bumstead opens his mouth in reply, but is stricken by sudden amnesia as well. No one in the city can remember how to get to the very beach whose promise of sunshine is plastered on the billboards right above their heads.
Note: The Director’s Cut also features an added scene that helps to flesh out the previously cypher-like characters of Emma and Bumstead, as they sit together alone in his car, each comparing notes on their emerging realities–with the realization that their lives aren’t what they seem. It’s a small but important scene that goes a long way towards establishing these characters. The scene also hints that other people within the city might be asking themselves such basic questions as why they can’t seem to remember daylight…
Bumstead, John, Emma and Schreber drive to the city limits and find a wall where Shell Beach should be located. Frustrated by the mystery and determined to find the enigmatic Shell Beach, Bumstead begins hammering into the brick wall, until he unexpectedly breaks through into outer space. The hapless Inspector is blown out into the airless void, dying almost instantly from exposure, his silent form tumbling end over end…
Note: The late William Hurt had a long and distinguished career. I first remember seeing him in 1983’s “The Big Chill.” In addition to his countless roles in many movies, his impact on science fiction was keen. The actor got his big break in Paddy Chayefsky’s “Altered States” (1981), which I eventually caught on cable years after its release. Hurt also starred in 1998’s reboot of “Lost in Space“, the 2000 TV miniseries adaptation of “Dune”, and Steven Spielberg’s “A.I: Artificial Intelligence” (2001). More recently he appeared as General Ross in “The Incredible Hulk” (2008) and several other Marvel Cinematic Universe films. He is missed.
This is when we get our first good look at the totality of the Strangers’ city. It’s a mammoth space station, with a forcefield containing the habitat’s atmosphere from above, and with a surrounding wall containing everyone within the ‘city limits’. Following Bumstead’s death, Emma and John are surrounded by Strangers, and Mr. Hand quickly takes Emma hostage. In the ensuing struggle, a Stranger is also blown out into the vacuum of space. With nowhere left to go, John is captured by the Strangers and taken to their underground facility…
Note: The exterior of the full Dark City model hovering in space is spectacular; like a floating Manhattan (or perhaps what the deliberately obtuse ‘Flat Earthers’ believe our world actually looks like…?). I’m glad I was able to see this film on a large enough screen to appreciate the scope of this impressive miniature work.
Bound in a harness by the Strangers, the untrustworthy Dr. Schreber is then ordered by Mr. Book to inject John with the collective memories and experiences of their species. It is Mr. Book’s belief that John is the culmination of their long experiment with humanity; the one who will ensure the survival of their kind (and their formidable ability to “tune” reality) within his DNA. John is bound to a table, unable to resist, as Dr. Schreber carefully switches the syringe containing the Strangers’ collective experience with the one he gave to John earlier–the syringe containing John’s own memories, prior to his amnesia at the beginning of the story.
Note: This is of the rare moments in the film where you have to swallow a bit of ‘movie magic’ to make a moment work. We have to accept that John wasn’t searched before he was brought into the laboratory, and that Mr. Hand (somehow) failed to see the switching of syringes performed by Dr. Schreber right in front of his very face (!). Ahem, moving on…
Following the injection, John begins to experience a flood of flashbacks to his ‘childhood’ in Shell Beach. Though Schreber has replaced the faces of the people in John’s life with his own, in order to keep him focused on the mission at hand–revolting against the Strangers, thus destroying their hold over their human lab subjects. With his full memory restored, including better knowledge of his psionic tuning power, John emerges from the table and faces off against Mr. Book and the other Strangers; his tuning powers are now greater than theirs. In fact, it seems that select human beings might have a natural affinity for tuning…
Note: In the flashbacks, the mental image of Schreber isn’t the unhealthy, stooping man with the halting voice. Instead, he’s strong and confident as he coaches younger John on what’s to come and what’s expected of him.
Turning the tables on the city’s decaying overlords, John sets about destroying their underground lab complex, and hastening the dying race’s departure from existence, blowing them into the cosmos beyond. He also sets about remaking the dark city as a place for humans to live freely… with lives no longer predetermined by midnight role-playing games. John then changes the space station’s orientation to face a nearby star, in order to give the city daylight. With his powers seemingly unlimited, John then corrals water ice within the parameters of the protective forcefield surrounding the station, creating a new ocean and turning the space station into an island. A determined John literally wills the ocean remembered from his false childhood into reality, with a massive ring of fresh water surrounding a thin beach of sand just outside the massive city walls. However, there is one element missing… Emma. John asks Dr. Schreber about her, and he is saddened to learn that he was too late to prevent her most recent reprogramming. Even with his tremendous telekinetic powers, John is unable to affect individual memories. John learns Emma is now a ticket taker at a local theater renamed “Anna” who doesn’t remember him.
Like the Biblical God on the seventh day after the Creation, John takes a moment to admire his handiwork. Opening a newfound door to the outer walls, he is met by a convenient pier, waiting for him. At the end of the pier, he sees ‘Anna,’ who also shares his affinity for the ocean. After remaking her acquaintance, he asks her the location of Shell Beach. She then points to a resort just down the shoreline. They make plans to get together. John and Emma/Anna are reunited in a world of John’s creation…
Note: The notion of a man trapped on a false island surrounded by water would also be explored later in 1998 with Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show”, starring Jim Carrey in one of his best performances (in a perfect world, he should’ve nabbed an Oscar nomination). The mythical Shell Beach created at the end of “Dark City” bears a superficial resemblance to the sunny, idyllic, artificial ‘paradise’ of Truman’s “Seahaven.” The difference, of course, is that John created his paradise, whereas Jim Carrey’s Truman Burbank was trying desperately to escape from his own. One person’s heaven is another’s hell.
Of course, the question I kept asking myself after I first saw the movie was ‘what happens now?’ John is essentially God by the end of the story, and has recreated the world to his liking. He even manages to get Emma back, even if she can’t recall being his wife. But what does a “god” do next? Is John dangerous now? Can he be trusted with this awesome, unprecedented power? Will he become corrupted in time, like his former overseers? These would be heady questions for a sequel someday, but unfortunately, “Dark City” tanked at the box office–making roughly $27 million or so worldwide, before finding future cult-movie status. This is a real shame. I would love to see a movie ambitious enough to ask what happens to a person after they achieve godhood…
To those who want to see a laundry list of all the differences between the Theatrical and Director’s Cuts? I refer you to this video I found on MovieCensorship.com; it lays out the differences in great detail. Personally, I prefer to just sit back and let the Director’s Cut wash over me as a singular experience, but some readers might wish to see exactly where and how the two versions diverge, and I certainly appreciate that impulse:
Summing It Up.
Right off, the surreal cinematography of “Dark City” is incredible; even more so with the grayish-green color correction of the Director’s Cut, which adds to its almost-sickly appearance. The sodium vapor-lit night scenes, the isolation of the characters, and the mid-20th century period details make the film look like a series of living Edward Hopper paintings. One might assume the reality-bending visual effects of “Dark City” were accomplished entirely with CGI, but it was a deft combination of mostly practical miniatures with just a bit of digital extension and finishing. While the miniature work is a bit more easy to spot in HD on a larger screen, it doesn’t pop a viewer out of the story. If anything, such awareness heightens the surreality of John Murdoch’s never-ending rat’s maze. It also gives appreciative viewers a moment’s pause to imagine the technical challenges of creating a constantly resetting cityscape largely through practical means.
The performances within “Dark City” are equally compelling, particularly in the Director’s Cut where certain relationships are enhanced and fleshed out a bit more than in the 1998 release. Rufus Sewell expertly conveys the understandable paranoia of his character, but without the usual tics and cliches associated with that state. Jennifer Connelly’s “Emma/Anna” and the late William Hurt’s “Inspector Bumstead” were previously blank slates in the theatrical version, but now their characters are given some breathing room in the Director’s Cut. We better understand how these nearly non-sentient persons emerge into awareness (the dreamers awaken). Sadly, this makes Inspector Bumstead’s death and Emma’s near-lobotomy into ‘Anna’ all the more tragic by the end of the film.
Within the sub-genre of reality-bending movies, “Dark City” most effectively captures the feeling of a waking nightmare; a collection of floating reanimated corpses, presiding over a night that never ends, in a city that seemingly never sleeps, except when its denizens are being reprogrammed for another round of experimentation. The film reminds me of those deep dreams where rooms, spaces, time, and even physical laws bend to the desires of the dreamer; where we can somehow will ourselves to ‘float’ or to do other incredible acts of reality-defiance–until we awaken, succumbing to both gravity and consequence.
“Dark City” is one of those little cinematic sci-fi gems, like “Gattaca”, that you wish got the praise and popularity it deserves. The late Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert was a big fan of the film, and did a commentary on the DVD as well (which, for full disclosure, I still haven’t listened to as of yet). Comparisons of the movie to “Metropolis,” “The Thirteenth Floor,” “The Truman Show”, “Inception” and other reality-bending, neo-noir sci-fi films past and present are certainly valid, though I think that “Dark City” tells its tale with greater efficiency and perhaps a bit more panache. Director Alex Proyas, along with scriptwriters David Goyer (“Blade”) and Lem Dobbs (“The Limey”), has elegantly reified a beautiful, stylish nightmare onto 35mm film.
Where To Watch
In addition to DVD and Blu-Ray (available from Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, BestBuy.com; prices vary), the Director’s Cut of “Dark City” can be rented via Prime Video, Vudu, and purchased for streaming on YouTube ($9.99).
With the recent invasion of Ukraine, here’s hoping the courageous Ukrainian people will someday see daylight from this nightmare. Wishing the people of Ukraine perseverence, and that this hideous invasion ends sooner than later. Meanwhile, the current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is over 1 million (and over six million worldwide) as of this writing. Please use caution and good judgment when it comes to masking and safe distancing, as many states are now easing prior COVID restrictions due to decreasing numbers of infections. In these challenging times, be safe and stay strong.