Thursday, May 14, 2009

Lazy Blogger Repost: Dark City (Alex Proyas)

I'm busy with work right now, and I just don't have the energy to type up the DVD review for [Rec] that I've been meaning to put up for awhile now. So, I thought I would dust off an old favorite of mine (this is an old post that I put up when I started my blog last year in honor of the Director's Cut DVD, but this is something I had written well before, so I took the liberty of cleaning up any glaring errors) and give some always-deserved credit to one of my favorite films Dark City. I plan on seeing Che this weekend (both parts) so I'll be back with some thoughts there, and some more DVD reviews.

The first 15 minutes of Dark City are unlike anything I've seen in Science Fiction. Right away director Alex Proyas is showing us his interest in using Film Noir elements to mix with the Science Fiction genre to create a neo-noir film. Most of Film Noir is based on the innocent man being in the wrong place at the wrong time. These men are anti-heroes, usually privy to some kind of information they didn’t want to begin with; they're flawed individuals who would prefer to have the authorities figure things out, rather then risking their own life, . That is how Dark City begins. Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakens from a bath tab -- a rebirth of sorts, as he emerges naked and from water -- in an old hotel as an overhead light swings back and forth (we find out why later) and as he frantically searches the hotel for any remnants of who he is. Then, for the first 15+ minuets of the film he begins to attempt to piece the clues together quickly.

Technically Proyas and his editor Dov Hoenig are cutting this together at a rapid pace, like a comic book it is storyboarded for us with sharp jump cuts from static shots in order for the viewer to witness the clues in a startling manner much like Murdoch discovers them. The viewer is disoriented from the onset as Proyas begins the film in medias res, compounding the confusion and allowing the viewer to feel just as lost as Murdoch. The entire opening sequence is one of the most visually brilliant I've seen in film. It is all visual exposition as very little weight is given to dialogue to help guide the viewer towards certain truths. Proyas and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (and don’t forget the brilliant art direction by Richard Hobbs and Michelle McGahey and the production design by George Liddle and Patrick Tatopoulos) create a world filled with allusions from German Expressionism and Film Noir, as well as evoking imagery from Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”; it helps if one is well versed in these visual allusions to understand what Proyas is trying to say about his characters. This is a classic neo-noir (or postmodern noir) film where the entire world the characters inhabit is nothing more than a simulacrum, a pastiche consisting, as one character explains, of architecture and clothing from different eras and the collected memories of the humans who live within the city. The film is German Expressionism, Science Fiction, Film Noir and Cyberpunk all rolled into one, and deserves mention along side such classics as Metropolis and Blade Runner

Like many science-fiction/noir hybrids Dark City is concerned with a race of artificial intelligence or some form of alien race -- here called the Strangers who don fedoras and trench coats like henchmen from a 1940’s Noir -- who are interested in the make up of the human soul. The Strangers have a method they call “tuning” where they can manipulate the city architecture at midnight and insert new memories into the sleeping humans. When they “tune” they stop time at midnight and proceed with their business. Here they have enlisted the aide of the only human to understand (besides Murdoch, who we come to learn can also “tune”) what is going on, Dr. Daniel J. Schreber played wonderfully by Kiefer Sutherland (who is doing his best Peter Lorre). Schreber is the one that was injecting Murdoch with his new memories when Murdoch woke and scared the good doctor away. We learn that Murdoch is apparently being pursued not only by the Strangers, but also by the police who are after him for the murder of six prostitutes. That’s about all the set up there is to this film as the rest is like a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces are laid out in front of the viewer at exactly the same time they are given to Murdoch. The Film Noir theme continues as the first shot we get of Emma Murdoch (John’s “wife”) is in cigarette smoked filled night club. She is right out of the 1940’s with her green dress, sultry voice (I mean it is Jennifer Connelly we’re talking about) and bright red lipstick. The image belongs more in a film like Out of the Past than in a Science Fiction film, but that’s what the neo-noir genre seeks, a pastiche of visual styles from the 1920’s and German Expressionism, to the Noir films of the 40’s to the stylized vision of Kubrick’s 2001, films like Dark City and Blade Runner look to create a disjointed universe by melding these genres together to create a setting that is ambiguous; therefore we are just as confused and disoriented as the characters.

Not only is the film one of the great visionary films of all time (watch some of the scenes frame by frame and you will see how meticulously it was put together), but it is also a great entertainment. As mentioned before, the film just starts right up with very little verbal exposition. The viewer is given the clues in the first 15 minutes and then must decipher what is going on. But again, Proyas is interested in the viewer being just as disoriented as the characters, so right when we think we have the pieces in place, Proyas throws a curve ball and everyone (including the characters) is confused again. This invitation for the viewer to get involved is shown through the character of Inspector Bumstead (the always entertaining William Hurt) when he explains (I’ll paraphrase) “I have all of the pieces to this jigsaw puzzle in front of me, and when I go to rearrange the pieces, nothing makes sense.”

I think what I liked most about the film was that it wasn’t interested in the pseudo philosophical dialogue that The Matrix made so popular. Dark City was released a year prior to The Matrix (which used some of the same sets as Dark City), but that film was much more interested in its own ideas and enjoyed listening to itself talk and talk and talk and then masked its lame philosophic and pseudo religious allegories with special effects and wall to wall action. As a genre picture, The Matrix works extremely well, but it doesn’t even begin to approach the greatness of Dark City. The amazing thing is that Dark City almost does it all in visuals, like Stanley Kubrick did with 2001. Proyas is a great visionary who prefers the poetry of the camera, instead of needless exposition, to further the story along.

Don’t get me wrong, there are great moments of dialogue written by David S. Goyer (Batman Begins) and Lem Dobbs (The Limey). For instance, when Murdoch tells Mr. Hand, one of the Strangers, that they went looking in the wrong place (as he points to his head) to find what makes humans human. What’s nice about this scene is that he doesn’t expand further into some cliché ridden diatribe about how the heart is where they should have looked and if you have enough heart you can do anything and then you will find what makes humans tick. Nope, Goyer and Dobbs do the right thing (along with Proyas’ direction) and leave it at Murdoch pointing to his head as he walks away. After all, like Metropolis, the film is about the heart of the cities inhabitants bringing down the ‘machine’ that lurks underground and controls their thoughts. The metaphor is clear, but it’s subtle touches like that scene with Murdoch and Mr. Hand that work so well in conveying this message without bludgeoning the viewer of the head with it; where one year later The Matrix would just continue to talk and talk and talk (I think Laurence Fishbourne is still talking) about what the film was about, rather than showing us. Also, consider this short little break in the film as Schreber takes Murdoch and Bumstead to the elusive Shell Beach (one of the clues in the film, I dare not give anything more away) and as they rowing their way down a river Schreber tells them about The Strangers and the cities mysteries:

I call them the strangers; they abducted us and brought us here. This city, everyone in it, is their experiment. They mix and match our memories as they see fit, trying to divine what makes us unique. One day a man might be an inspector, the next, someone entirely different. When they want to study a murder, for instance, they simply imprint one of their citizens with a new personality. Arrange a family for him, friends, an entire history, even a lost wallet. Then they observe the results. Will a man, given the history of a killer, continue in that vein, or are we, in fact, more than the mere sum of our memories? This business of you being a killer was an unhappy coincidence. You have had dozens of lives before now. You just happened to wake up while I was imprinting you with this one.

When they first brought us here they extracted what was in us, so they could store them information, remix it like so much paint, and give us back new memories of their choosing. But they still needed an artist to help them. I understood the intricacies of the human mind better than they ever could. So they allowed me to keep my skills as a scientist because they needed them. They made me delete everything else.

This artificial city with its false memories is of course a simulacrum, a dark world occupied by jagged construction that almost tears through the frames that try to contain them. Proyas is of course using elements of German Expressionism to visually tell us these things. Tilted shots, or Dutch angles, create an uneasy feeling. The viewer, like Murdoch, is not quite sure where this mystery is leading to. Another element of German Expressionism is the use of obtrusive and over exaggerated set pieces. This again plays to the idea that they are almost bursting through the frame, trying to break free, much like Murdoch and Bumstead when they peel back the Shell Beach poster and hammer away at the brick wall that lies behind it, they are trying to break through the barrier of the dark city.

Another crucial moment is this piece of exposition later in the film, which ends up being the turning point for Bumstead as he talks with a retired inspector named Walenski, who was the investigator of the prostitute murders prior to Bumstead:

Walenski: Well, nothing happened Frank. I’ve just been spending time in the subway, riding in circles, thinking in circles. There’s no way out. I’ve been over every inch of this city.
Bumstead: You’re scaring your wife to death, Eddie.
Walenski: She’s not my wife. I don’t know who she is. I don’t know who any of us are.
Bumstead: What makes you say that?
Walenski: Do you think about the past much, Frank?
Bumstead: As much as the next guy.
Walenski: See? I’ve been trying to remember things, clearly remember things from my past. But the more I try to think back, the more it all starts to unravel. None of it seem real. It’s like I’ve just been dreaming this life and when I finally wake up I’ll be somebody else. Somebody totally different.
Bumstead: You saw something, didn’t you Eddie? Something to do with the case?
Walenski: There is no case, there never was! It’s all just a big joke! It’s a joke!

These little moments of dialogue are nice compliments to the frantic and kinetic chase that occupies most of the film. They offer insight into the films larger themes by being concise moments of insight that allow the audience to think about the questions, rather than having the characters hammer home the point. But it is still the visuals that will always be remembered. The special effects add to the film rather than overshadow it, and the constant use of obtrusive angles and exaggerated set designs creates a world of chaos (like the spiral imagery throughout the film, which thanks to the DVD commentary by Roger Ebert, I was able to learn that the symbol of the spiral is associated with chaos theory) and disorientation, a simulacra, or hyperreality where nothing is as it seems. The character of Bumstead runs in circles, and circular logic, trying to explain away what is happening rather than pursuing a form of action and finding out what is going on, when he is invited by Murdoch to find Shell Beach and he helps Murdoch ‘break down the wall’, the Inspector crosses an important threshold. In order to find out who he was, he had to act. Bumstead and others break from the spiral and the circles to become human, it is in the breaking out of the spiral (look at the shot where there is an overhead view of the city, it is spiral in nature) where the inhabitants of this artificial city cease to be artificial themselves, and become fully realized, fleshed out people.

For the astute film watcher there are numerous allusions to Metropolis (the underground lair), M (where all you see are the anemic faces underground, like in the trial scene), Blade Runner, and 2001. You can also see allusions to Carol Reed’s brilliant The Third Man whose images of bombed out postwar Vienna streets creep into Dark City’s imagery as Murdoch spends much of his mystery searching through dark alleys and shadowy corridors. It is a film few can match in its visual splendor.

I will end with this excerpt from Roger Ebert’s essay on Dark City:

Notice an opening shot that approaches the hotel window behind which we meet Murdoch. The window is a circular dome in a rectangular frame. As clearly as possible, it looks like the "face" of Hal 9000 in 2001. Hal was a computer that understood everything, except what it was to be human and have emotions. Dark City considers the same theme in a film that creates a completely artificial world in which humans teach themselves to be themselves.

The humans that occupy Dark City are the toys for the Strangers, cadavers used for scientific purposes. As Murdoch explains (and I mentioned earlier) they were poking and prodding the wrong place, it is the heart that can teach you about humanity, and we can talk and talk and talk about it all we want, we can sound wise like Neo and Morpheus, but it is in action where we find humanity, and Murdoch and Emma and Bumstead and even Schreber understand that they have to “teach themselves to be themselves” by acting on what their heart wants, not trying to put the jigsaw puzzle together, pontificating all day (or night in this case), only then will Murdoch and Emma (and all of us) truly be alive -- otherwise we're just running in circles.

Dark City
is one of my favorite films, and I think it easily ranks in the top 10 of the 90's. There hasn't been a science-fiction film released since that rivals it, and visually, few films, no matter what genre, have matched Proyas' visionary opus. It's a shame that Proyas has pretty much disappeared. He made the incredibly dull, but financially successful, I, Robot, which looked good enough, but lacked the emotional punch of his previous films (hell, even The Crow had more of an emotional arc than I, Robot); five years after that film he released the ridiculous looking Knowing starring Nicolas Cage. Roger Ebert gave the film four stars, and that coupled with the fact that I will always be interested in what Proyas produces, has my interest piqued enough to where I can ignore the rest of the negative reviews surrounding the film. However, nothing will match what he did with Dark City, and sadly his career has been akin to a Wellseian type fall -- Proays made his best film when he was 35 in what was only his second American film; but what a film it is, and really, most directors wish their entire oeuvre were as good as Dark City.


  1. I watched Dark City for the first time a couple of months ago on Blu-Ray. The movie looked fantastic. I really enjoyed this film I am amazed I hadn't gotten around to seeing it until then.

    The blu ray was cool because after watching the directors cut I rewatched it with the popup videos showing the differences between the directors cut and the theatrical version. Man they butchered the theatrical version. The explaination of who the stragers were right at the begining of the story took out all the suspense, I don't know how that would have even been enjoyable to continue watching.

    Just another example of a studio forcing the director to dumb down a film for all of us, his slow audience.

  2. Brandon:

    The Blu-Ray of this film is amazing, you are right about that. I think it's quite the compliment to how good the film is that the theatrical cut is still extremely entertaining and suspenseful, in spite of the fact5 that they neutered the ambiguity in regards to the The Strangers, as you point out.

    I think the Director's Cut is obviously the way to go, here; but, the original version is the version I fell in love with, and it's still extremely hard to find flaws in it.

    Also, I’m sure the scene where Murdoch and Mr. Hand are fighting at the end, re-tuning the city as they battle, sounded amazing at your house. I wish I could have been there to watch it, because that scene is, from a post-production standpoint, flawless in its execution. I’m guessing the metamorphosis of the city, with all of its clinking and clanging, sounded amazing in the theater room...

  3. Kevin, if you've never seen anything like Dark City before, I feel badly for your lack of knowledge of cinema. The aesthetics and themes in Dark City have been done, and done better, in so many other features: off the top of my head, Metropolis, Pandora's Box, and Blade Runner. All Alex Proyas did was take those three films, and many others like them, put them in a blender, and hit "puree". Adding insult to injury, this is one of the most poorly-edited features to see commercial release, and Kiefer Sutherland's performance recalls Peter Lorre less than some frat boy on a bender.

  4. Chelsea:

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts on the film. I'm sorry we disagree on this movie, but hey, what fun is it when everyone agrees with each other.

    I think part of the reasoning behind the "puree" as you put it (which is a good line, but I don't think Proyas or his crew were that lazy) is the fact that that's all the Stranger's know how to do. The film is pastiche because they screenplay calls for it to be.

    I think the film is a masterpiece, and I mention Metropolis as the film's main influence in the essay.

    Where you and I differ is in this: just because you disagree with someone, doesn't mean they don't have a wealth of cinematic knowledge. There are always films I need to see and am excited to see, but I've seen a lot of movies, and I would hardly call myself an amateur when it comes to film knowledge.

    I read your review of Dark City, and I have to say, you claim it's overrated and give some good reasons as to why you think, but then you go off on Ebert at the end of the review sounding upset that he decided to do a commentary track for Dark City (a little seen Sci-Fi film) instead of The Conformist.

    Lastly, I don't see what's so bad about films that try to take elements from great films and compound on them. Almost every fill in existence visually apes something that's come before it; especially in the Sci-Fi/Neo-Noir genre. The real question is how does it use these familiar visuals to further its themes. Any noir post Touch of Evil in indebted to those film from the 40's/50's.

    Anywho, thanks for stopping by. Contrary opinions are always welcome here, as I love the discussion.

  5. I quite agree that 'difference of opinion' does not equate with 'lacking cinematic knowledge' especially in the case of the gifted and effervescent Kevin Olson, who is never less that gracious, gnerous and passionate both in his moviegoing and his management of this wonderful blogsite.

    I like DARK CITY, and even if Kevin likes it more, it hardly matters. The review eloquently explains the reason behind the passion, and it rightly cites the intriguing blend of German expressionism, science-fiction and film noir, and the result is that the director Proyas creates a surreal place like none other seen before.

    I remember the film also referenced some other Murnau's NOSFERATU and Hitchcock's VERTIGO. There's even a nod to STAR TREK.

    I am eager to know Kevin, if you are a Trekkie, and if you've seen the new STAR TREK movie yet?

    Outstanding revistitation here of a film that has many fans.

  6. Sam:

    Thanks, as always, for the undeserved kind words. I've never understood the need to assume things about people simply because they have a different opinion about a film. Oh well.

    As for Star Trek, no I am not a Trekkie, and I probably won't be seeing the new film until it hits Blu-Ray. I'm not much of an Abrams fan, either. The only bits of Star Trek I've ever seen where when I was a kid and the local TV station used to play Star Trek V and VI every Saturday afternoon. I remember thinking the sixth one was quite entertaining, but boy was I bored to tears by the fifth installment. It also didn't help that I was watching them on TV and without any prior knowledge of back story in regards to the characters.

    Anyway, maybe I would like it more now, I don't know. I read your review of the newest installment, and that will certainly get me to rent it on Blu-Ray.

  7. Kevin:

    Because you were polite to me and my response was a little mean, I wanted to come back, apologize for the harshness of my words, and clarify some of the things I was trying to say. I felt a little like a troll when I came back and read what I'd posted. :)

    My assumption that you had little experience with film came as the result of your opening paragraph, in which you said: "The first 15 minutes of Dark City are unlike anything I've seen in Science Fiction." Because my reading comprehension skills are not always what they should be, the "in Science Fiction" qualification hadn't registered, and I assumed that film was not your main interest. Clearly I was in the wrong. Also, to put things into perspective, I was a film theory major and have made several shorts, and German Expressionism and noir are big areas of interest for me. The first time I saw Dark City, I didn't see anything in the film that other directors hadn't done in earlier features.

    What rubs me the wrong way about the film's adherents is that they seem very quick to describe the film as "a masterpiece", which is a big word to throw around. The film was badly promoted on its initial run and may have been mishandled and misunderstood by the studio. It does have two major flaws: the editing and the performances, particularly Kiefer Sutherland's. (I will concede that the fast editing style is appropriate for the film's first reel, as it reflects the mindset of the protagonist.) None of the film's fans seem to want to acknowledge either of these issues, and I have yet to read an admirer who can defend them. No work of art, no matter how ignored or underappreciated, is beyond reproach, and I could point out the flaws in many of the films that inspire me. (Yes, even The Conformist.)

    The last 'graph of my essay does come off as a little indignant. We all get frustrated that these things that mean a lot to us are swept under the rug. As an admirer of The Conformist, I do wish it had as prominent a patron as Roger Ebert and as devoted a viewership as Proyas has. It might have gotten restored and rereleased much more quickly.

    Thank you again for hearing me out.

  8. Chelsea:

    No worries. Like I said in my earlier comment, this life would be quite boring if we all agreed on everything. I understand skipping over words when reading a blog post, I read so many a day that sometimes my mind finishes the sentence with words that aren't there.

    I personally don't think Sutherland's performance is that terrible. I think he's having fun hamming it up for the camera much like Lorre and those character actors of the Noir era did. Usually those were the characters that were most memorable, too.

    There are no doubt other films that people should acquaint themselves with before they view Dark City, but I stand by my assessment that it's one of the best films of the 90's.

    I certainly can understand someone, especially those who are immersed in the genre as you claim to be, being less than thrilled about the film; however, I can also see why people revere it so. There are rarely films that I see where I go "I just can't understand why they don't like it."

    Thanks for coming back and clarifying things. I certainly understand your points better, and I hope you stop by and comment again.

  9. Tried to watch this tonight but had to turn it off. I really don't like how this movie is edited. It doesn't seem to give individual scenes any room to breathe. There also seems to be very few transitions. It jumps from scene to scene with almost not setup. The music is loud and obtrusive. Sutherland is annoying. No, I can't watch a film like this.