Saturday, May 23, 2009

Chris's Catch-Ups--"Dark City" (1998, dir. Alex Proyas)

There hasn't been a lot of activity here lately and it's basically because I haven't had the desire to hit the theater. "Angels and Demons" holds no interest for me and I was unable to make a screening of "Terminator Salvation"--and the buzz I'm hearing makes me wonder if I even want to check it out. I still eventually need to get around to writing my thoughts on "The Apartment" and "Chinatown," which I watched about a month ago...but those will come in time.

The Chris's Catch-Ups entries are just that, by the way. These are movies that I have never seen that are deemed essential viewing by many critics. "The Apartment" and "Chinatown" are two of those and, in the coming weeks, I hope to also catch up with "Vertigo," "La Dolce Vita" and "The 400 Blows." This weekend, however, seems to be all about sci-fi...maybe an subconscious rebellion against what Hollywood feeds us now. Later tonight I hope to sit back and watch John Carpenter's "Escape from New York." But for now, here are my thoughts on Alexander Proyas' "Dark City," from 1998.

I always find it amazing, this business of what succeeds in Hollywood and what gets ignored.

Take science fiction in the years of 1998 and 1999, for example. During that time you had two very intense science fiction thrillers released. Both dealt with the idea of different life forms manipulating human reality and one man who could fight back. Both were very dark, imaginative visions that incorporated noir, science fiction and elements of the action genre. One had a cast of fairly respected actors and a director whose last film had been a commercial success. The other had an actor who was pretty much a punchline and several co-stars who were respected, but in know way well-known. The directors' previous film was a heist movie about lesbians.

And yet, the one that had the higher pedigree was the one ignored by many audiences. In 1998, Alex Proyas' "Dark City" was passed over by audiences, despite some strong critical support--especially from Roger Ebert. Just one year later, "The Matrix"--a visually similar film--was a box office smash. Maybe it was the kung fu.

Nothing against "The Matrix," by the way--at least, not the first one. I was one of the audience members who never thought twice about "Dark City" but thought, for one summer, that "The Matrix" was the greatest thing ever made--I saw it about three times in theaters and spent hours discussing its theological and philosophical underpinnings with friends. Ten years later, it's been years since I've sat and watched the film, which truthfully was tarnished by two inferior sequels--one massively bloated the other just massively awful. And while I still hold "The Matrix" in high regard as a revolutionary moment in Hollywood, thanks to its groundbreaking special effects, the truth is that I've come to realize that it's just a really cool action/sci-fi hybrid that manages to pile a mishmash of Christian/Buddhist/Post-Modern thought into a blender, spouting lines of "deep" dialogue that mask the fact that the Wachowskis really had some ideas but no real beliefs. And that's fine..."The Matrix" is still a fun movie and it's more intelligent than most action flicks. But anyone who tries to tell you it's a deep film really hasn't stopped to think much about it. There are a lot of cool concepts...just no real ideas.

Which may be why people stayed away from "Dark City." While Alex Proyas' film is a top-notch, very exciting thriller, it's also about ideas. Proyas is a visual master who is also not afraid to tackle heavy science fiction premises. Here, he not only deals with a very intriguing idea (SPOILER!)--what if humans were really subjects in a massive alien experiment to see what makes us tick--but he also moves beyond that admittedly cool premise to delve into deeper ideas...what makes someone human? If we are the sum of our memories, what happens if our memories aren't real? If you supply someone with the information and background that tells them they love a person, is that love real? Audiences, especially those who just want to be entertained, don't like having to grapple with questions...they'd rather be spoon fed answers. And "Dark City" doesn't simply say "here's a cool idea" and then go on deals with the implications and questions raised. It's one of the most visually astonishing films I've ever seen and also one of the most brilliantly-imaginative pieces of science fiction of the past 15 years.

Do yourself a favor if you rent the regular cut, as I forward past Kiefer Sutherland's opening narration. From what I've read, Proyas added that narration...which explains way too the insistence of studio execs. I understand his Director's Cut--which I haven't seen but plan to eventually purchase--removes that narration and allows audiences to be kept in the dark a little while longer. Which is the right way to play the much of it is rooted in the genre of film noir that giving it a dose of confusion and mystery just feels right.

The film concerns a man (Rufus Sewell) who wakes up in a hotel bathtub, naked and covered in blood with no memory of who he is, where he is or what he's done...although the murdered prostitute in his room is probably not a good sign. The man finds out he's been in the hotel for three weeks. There are newspaper clippings in his pocket that suggest he's responsible for the death of several other prostitutes. He has a wife (Jennifer Connelly) who is a torch singer at a local club who apparently had an affair. He receives a breathless call from Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) who tells him he knows why he has no memories and he can help him. There are reminders of a beautiful location named Shell Beach that the man--who later learns his name is John Murdoch--assumes must have some importance...the problem is that, while everyone has heard of Shell Beach, no one knows quite how to get there or leave the city at all. Despite the hours he spends trying to figure out his identity and run from a police inspector (William Hurt), Murdoch also notices the sun never rises...and no one can remember the last time they did anything during the day.

And that's all I'm going to tell you even if, as I said, the theatrical cut spoils some of the plot's surprises early on (again, I really want to see the Director's Cut for this). I guess I could hint that there are some pale faced, very-evil looking men following John of them has the body of a child although I have to admit it's the most terrifying kid I've ever seen. Oh, and John learns he can move things with his mind.

And the city actually physically changes at midnight each night. And I only mention that because it's impossible to discuss this film's visual beauty without mentioning that.

I wasn't a huge fan of Proyas' first film, "The Crow," although I did think it was beautifully filmed. Since then, Proyas hasn't really been on my radar. I still have yet to see his take on "iRobot," although I was one of the few critics to absolutely love this year's "Knowing," which managed to meld smart science fiction, chilling special effects and bold musings about randomness vs. determinability.

But "Dark City" is head and shoulders above any of that. Even if it wasn't such a thrilling tale, the visuals alone would make it worth a mention (how I regret not seeing this on the big screen!). Proyas has said "Dark City" owes a massive debt to the films of Fritz Lang and, yes, it's all there on the screen. The movie doesn't so much ape "Metropolis" as build on the idea of reality being controlled by underground beings...but many of the visuals, including the mechanical devices that control things and the use of clock faces--or set pieces designed to resemble clock faces--are unmistakably inspired by Lang's masterpiece. And the Strangers, with their pale, shadowy faces, are dead-ringers for the underworld thugs in Lang's "M."

But the city itself, with its mixture of period detail--its a 1940s-esque setting, but the cars are often from the 1980s--is something totally original, inspired however by the work of German Expressionists. The buildings cut through the sky at steep angles, much of the city is in shadows. And then, when they move...but I'll let you see that for yourself. Ebert has written extensively about this film and stated how he has, on shot-by-shot analysis, stopped and admired certain frames and is grateful that such beautifully photographed shots exist.

One thing that kept crossing through my mind was that this film was made in 1998. Yes, it was five years after "Jurassic Park" revolutionized computer generated imagery, but I also know that "Dark City" had to cost only a sliver of "JPs" budget. So was this all done with computers? Some of the sets are clearly physical locations...and some of the shots--such as when a building comes crashing close to another...bear the imprint of actual being physical effects. If it is computer generated, it's better than I would have expected for the time. If it's not, it's an astonishing use of physical effects.

But it's not just a movie about sensory overload. Proyas is interested in deeper themes here and, when the truth is revealed, it's impossible to keep your brain from jumping around from question to question. This movie poses big musings about humanity, memory, reality, the existence of the soul, the triumph of the individual over the collective, and while it never spoonfeeds audiences the answers, it explores each question fully. It's brilliant science fiction, which manages to ask some of life's deepest questions while never losing its bullet-pacing or suspense.

The performances are all strong here, although I've never thought Sewell as much of a screen presence and, to be honest, I don't think he quite has the gravitas to make Murdoch an iconic hero (not that he's supposed to be). Connelly is beautiful as ever and, although her role is fairly small, it's the lynchpin of the movie; "you were looking in the wrong place," Murdoch tells a Stranger at the end of the film...and when you see that scene, and know what he was talking about, you'll know why Connelly's role was so important. Hurt is great as always as the detective who begins to suspect something about the world isn't write. And Sutherland, pudgy and out of breath, is as far removed from Jack Bauer as you can get...he's fascinating here and it's one of my favorite roles he's played.

Being the summer season, we've been bombarded already with science fiction, from "Wolverine" to "Star Trek" and "Terminator Salvation." The problem is that these take the idea of science fiction but don't honor the heart of it...using it to dig deep and show us things we've never seen before. "Dark City" pulses with originality, intelligence and heart. And even if it's not perfect (they never do explain why Murdoch has the same ability as the Strangers), it's still a pretty fantastic experience.


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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.