Dark City (DVD, 1998, Platinum Series) Reviews
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Dark City (DVD, 1998, Platinum Series)

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The Director's (un-)Cut of "Dark City"

May 20, 2012
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:look, bonus features

Cons:climactic battle runs on and on

The Bottom Line: Murders, soul-murders, and a retro neo-noir look

Alex Proyas (The Crow; I, Robot) is not in my pantheon of auteurs, but then scir-fi, even noirish sci-fi is not a genre I seek out. The “Dark City” was his vision, incorporating personal memories of growing up in London, and the director’s cut of “Dark City” seems to me to work just fine without a voice-over explanatory prologue by Kiefer Sutherland (who plays a psychiatrist with the name of the most famous schizophrenic in psychiatric literature, Schreber). Having been slapped with an R rating for no reason on than its weirdness, the movie did not find an audience in 1998, though it became something of a cult favorite on DVD and with avid support by Roger Ebert (who appears several times in bonus features lauding the movie).

A man whose driver’s license informs him is named John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a magenta-colored claw-footed bathtub. A phone call from Dr. Schreber warns him to flee, and the corpse of a woman with red mazes painted on her semi-nude body also encourages flight. Murdoch’s amnesia extends to a wife whom he does nor recognize, Emma (Jennifer Connelly), who is guilty about an affair he discovered. Not remembering her, he doesn’t remember be upset at her affair either.

Murdoch is being pursued by Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) and by aliens. Eventually he learns from Dr. Schreber that the aliens are experimenting with implanting memories. Almost a quarter of a century after playing Riff in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” Richard O’Brien is older and graver as the aliens’ mastermind, Mr. Hand. I might say that was typecasting, except that I’d have expected Ian Richardson (Mr. Book) to be in charge…

Neither Inspector Bumstead or John Murdoch is particularly bright, but Bumstead decides that Murdoch probably is not a murderer and joins him in a quest to understand what is going on, in particular why they cannot remember anything in recent memory happening by daylight, and how to get to Shell Beach.

Proyas bristles at the rap that the movie has oodles of style and not much substance. He thinks it has a lot of ideas… but then he made “The Crow”! Lem Dobbs (The Limey, The Score), who was brought in to aid with the screenplay talks a lot about Walter Benjamin in the bonus features (though I don’t think that Benjamin ever found a positive sense of “kitsch”…). The movie, shot in Australia before the advent of CGI, has a retro look that I couldn’t pin down. It seemed more 1940s than anything else, with some 1950s and 60s and 30s touches. I was pleased to learn that this pastiche of looks of buildings and artifacts is explained by the contents of the memories of the people in the city.

At midnight each night (however long the nights are!) the humans have a mass narcoleptic fit and the aliens rearrange the city and implant memories in selected experimental subjects. Murdoch is something of a superman in that he does not nod off and sees the startling rearrangements of the physical aspects of the city (and some mystifying needles inserted into foreheads). He attempts to understand what is going on, aided by Dr. Schreber, who does not inspire trust.

Without the opening voiceover narration, what is going on makes sense by the end, a quite glorious looking end, I’d add. I note, however, that even with the spoon-feeding some epinionators found the earlier release confusing (and the end unsatisfying).

I overcame my aversion to William Hurt and to sci-fi movies primarily to see Rufus Sewell, who was prefiguring his role as the brave, none-too-bright, Inspector Italian police detective Aurelio Zen, reacting to strange events and people and landing on his feet. He and Connelly provided eye candy as well as performing their roles. BTW, I thought Hurt was fine in his role, which I learned from one of the bonus features he managed to make a bigger one. Sutherland is pretty annoyingly mannered.

One of the many people alludes to what I saw as a heavy influence of Fritz Lang (Metropolis and Dr. Mabuse and the criminal’s court from “M,” which I did not think of, but can see once I heard the suggestion). Someone else invokes “L’Aventurra” and “Last Year at Marienbad,” though it seems to me that “Dark City” provides explanations rather than leaving it up to viewers to make their own sense of the less epic mysteries in those 1960s art film). I think of Lang primarily as a maker of stylish noirs, but if I had to reduce the list of influences to only one movie, it would be his sci-fi dystopia “Metropolis.” (The aliens, however, seem modeled on the vampire from Murnau’s “Nosferatu” and there is some Caligari somnambulism, etc.)

Along with eliminating the opening spoonfeeding by Dr. Schreber, 15 minutes were added to the movie’s running time or were unsubtracted. As usual “director’s cut” would more accurately be labeled “director’s uncut,” restoring material he had cut under duress or was cut without his permission (I have yet to see a female director’s “director’s cut” so use the masculine pronoun). Proyas says this was mostly extending scenes, not restoring ones that were cut altogether.

There are commentary tracks by Proyas, by Ebert, and by writers Lem Dobbs and David S. Goye, none of which I have heard. The two featurettes, totaling more than an hour of running time (which I did watch) date from 2008 and differ from what was on earlier DVD releases.

The wealth of commentary tracks and featurettes tempts me to rate the DVD 5 stars, but the climactic human-alien (Sewell-O’Brien) battle seems to me to run on and on (as in “Blade Runner” and many others) and that makes me unwilling to give a 5-star rating (movie 4 –star, DVD 5-star).
©2012, Stephen O. Murray

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