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Dark City (1998)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“A world where the night never ends. Where man has no past. And humanity has no future.”

The events which make up the story in this movie occur in a setting that superficially might appear to be like our world. However, even more fundamentally than the tagline above hints, this movie happens somewhere else where reality has veered away from the system which governs our everyday events. Like several other films released in the late 90's, this movie suggests that appearances fundamentally differ from the underlying actuality. However, in its appearances this film offers extremely striking visuals, from the sets and costumes to the actors themselves.

The movie begins with Dr. Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) narrating a sort of history of the movie's world. Dr. Schreber has a strange speaking style. He tells of the coming of the “strangers,” who had developed the ability to “alter physical reality by will alone” which they call “tuning.” Dr. Schreber states that for some unknown reason the civilization of the “strangers” declined and their race sought a “cure for their own mortality.”

Dr. Schreber assists the "strangers” in their experiments. Each night at 12 AM all humans (except Dr. Schreber) inhabiting the world of their experiments fall asleep no matter what they might be doing: driving automobiles, taking the subway or operating heavy machinery. Surprisingly few catastrophes occur when this happens, perhaps from the intervention of the “strangers” and their mysterious powers.

As some of the credits roll the camera pans over the Gothic cityscape with its sleeping population before focusing on a man in a grimy bathtub who wakes before the others. The man has a few drops of what appears to be blood on his forehead. Although he doesn't recall his name, before long we will find that he goes by John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell). He seems unsteady and almost loses his balance on the wet tiled bathroom floor as he walks over to look in a mirror. Wiping away the drops of blood from his forehead and looking about the room, he sees clothing stacked neatly. After dressing, he leaves the bathroom to discover a suitcase and coat.

He answers a ringing telephone. On the phone Dr. Schreber tells him that his memories were lost as the result of an experiment. He also says that people will come for him and he must leave now. As he drops the phone, the man discovers what appears to be the murdered body of a woman next to a bed in the apartment. As he leaves the apartment an elevator stops at the same floor. He runs down stairs as oddly dressed figures come out of the elevator toward the apartment.

As he reaches the lobby of the building, which seems akin to a hotel or metropolitan rooming house, he discovers sleeping crowds of people who with the audible striking of a clock all wake nearly at once. The desk clerk says “Hey, Mr. Murdoch, the Automat called. Said you left your wallet there.” The clerk suggests Murdoch get his wallet so he can pay for his room as the three weeks he paid for have passed. Murdoch seems amazed that he's been there three weeks but the register confirms what the clerk has said. The clerk enters Murdoch's rooms, where the oddly dressed Mr. Hand (Richard O'Brien – remember Riff Raff from Rocky Horror?) puts him to sleep with a touch of his hand.

The scene changes to a club at which a very attractive brunette in a sequined gown sings a smoky lyric to a “rumba rhythm.” After her song she returns to her dressing room where another club worker gives her Dr. Schreber's card. When Emma Murdoch (Jennifer Connelly) goes to Schreber's office, she discovers that he has sought her out for information about her husband: John Murdoch. She says she hasn't seen him for three weeks. Schreber urges her to let him know when she does, warning her that Murdoch has had a “psychotic break” and lost his memory.

Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) plays the accordion alone in his rooms when his phone rings. He must attend to a murder, one which occurred in John Murdoch's rooms. As Bumstead visits the murder scene he gets the respect of the other officers already there. He seems a cool and self-assured person.

A bit more than 10 minutes have passed from the movie's opening. There has been no lull in the action, nor will one occur in the next hour and a half. This film may seem like several others. However, unless one goes back quite a few decades, this movie introduced the look which others have since also used.  It led others in its use of very mysterious, nearly mystical, fantastic story elements. I find this film quite similar in striking ways to The Matrix. However, this movie came out first.

Though it effectively uses special effects, it relies less on computer graphics than mood creation through more standard, but still unusual, visual and audio techniques. Producer / Director Alex Proyas also came up with the story and wrote the screenplay with Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer. The main actors all give outstanding performances. Although this film fits best in the science fiction category, it has elements of mystery, horror and the fantastic as well. If you enjoy movies that diverge from standard cinema fare, I think you will enjoy Dark City.

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