Friday, October 23, 2009

“It seems you have discovered your unpleasant nature.”

Welcome to a dystopian city where people go about their lives unaware that everything they do is closely monitored by…things that aren’t normal and a protagonist finds himself trying to piece together what’s going on while developing new powers. Now, if you’re thinking of The Matrix, well, not this time. This time its Dark City from 1998, a full year before The Matrix was released.

Our hero wakes up naked in a bathtub with a broken syringe nearby and a dead hooker in the other room (which is oddly enough, how a typical Saturday morning starts here at Castle--wait a minute, that’s not right) Then he gets a phone call from a guy who tells him some people, Strangers, are coming after him. He runs off into the night (clothed) and finds himself embroiled in a weird, film noir meets German Expressionism city where he finds himself a fugitive from both the law (he’s the main suspect for the murder) and from the Strangers, who are conducting experiments on people and he’s both resistant to their ability to induce sleep in people and is developing psionic powers like they have. Things proceed to get weird.

John Murdock: Rufus Sewell (who was the bad guy in A Knight’s Tale) is our amnesiac hero. At first, he doesn’t even know who he is until he gets his wallet and starts piecing together his identity and what’s going on. He’s pretty good and fairly competent at things too, and as the movie progresses he starts piecing together what’s going on and reconnecting with his wife and eventually developing his “tuning” ability (what the Strangers call the ability to shape reality with your mind) to a degree where he becomes quite badass. He’s also very, very interested in how to get to Shell Beach.

Inspector Frank Bumstead: William Hurt plays the policeman investigating the serial murder of several call girls (the last one being in Murdock’s apartment). A rather fastidious fellow, he’s very deadpan and serious, but is also one to ask important questions. Unfortunately, Mr. Dithers does not yell at him for being late to work after crashing into the mailman on his way out the door. That’s a different Bumstead.

Dr. Daniel P. Shreber: Kiefer Sutherland is in full mad scientist mode here. Yes, Jack Bauer himself in a decidedly non-Jack Bauer role. He’s a guy who knows a lot about what’s going on because he’s working with the Strangers on their experiments. He is, however, really interested in the developments that happen with Murdock, because he’s the only person to be able “tune” like the Strangers can. An interesting and shifting character.

Emma Murdock: Jennifer Connelly is John’s jazz lounge singer wife. She apparently cheated on him in the past and feels bad about it, but the details of which get deliberately muddled. She’s just trying to figure out what’s going on.

Detective Eddie Walenski: Colin Friels plays a cop who’s also managed to wake up during a tuning session, but unlike Murdock, he’s neither developed powers nor has he kept his sanity. Something of a Cassandra figure, he’s seen the reality of the city and its driven him over the edge.

Mr. Book: Ian Richardson is the (more or less) leader of the hive minded Strangers, who are all bald, pale and wear black. A grim-faced, sinister figure with a booming voice, he’s the real power behind the goings on of the city.

Mr. Hand: Richard O’Brien (from The Rocky Horror Picture Show) is the main Stranger who goes after Murdock. Something of a knife enthusiast, he gets injected with Murdock’s memories to better track him down. A thoroughly creepy fellow.

The other Strangers are mostly fodder material, aside from Mr. Wall, who’s teamed up with Mr. Hand, and then there’s Mr. Sleep, a little kid and a really freaky Stranger.
Directed by Alex Proyas (The Crow) the film layers on the grim, bleak and foreboding nature of the story. Owing a lot to Blade Runner, Metropolis and other films with similar themes, the film has a slick visual style helped by the fact that its always dark in the City, and there’s a very good reason for that. Fight scenes aren’t particularly flashy, but they are brutal and quick. The special effects are also fairly restrained. Tuning gets the lion’s share of the CGI with waves of “energy” representing the mental abilities, but also buildings will rise up and come down according to the whims of the Strangers, and it’s a really cool effect.

The script by Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer delivers a solid, thoughtful and efficiently told story. The movie moves well and while it doesn’t exactly blaze any new trails in the speculative fiction genre, it handles the material with deftness. Dialog is generally standard, except the Strangers have a peculiar verbal tic of ending sentences with yes, which is a pretty simple and effective way to separate them from the humans (aside from, you know, looking like bald freaks).

The original score by Trevor Jones is an appropriately moody and somber affair that fits the material well.

While Dark City shares a lot of themes with The Matrix (like the whole reality should be what you make of it, not what others make for you) it does present things in a much more thoughtful, methodical manner. Again, more film noir thriller than Kung-Fu spectacular. Boasting a solid cast, a fun trippy concept and some pretty freaky villains, Dark City is a worthwhile addition to the dystopian city genre and there is a director's cut that I've heard is superior.

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