“What Kind of Killer Do You Think Stops to Save a Dying Fish?”

Well, the Clarion West Write-a-Thon finished up last week, and I succeeded in writing things! Perhaps they weren’t the stories I should have been focusing on, necessarily, but it’s been a dark year, and it’s still only August. Sometimes, the joy of fanfic is more important than the projects that might someday get you paid.

Per usual, I offered up a movie review/essay as a possible reward, and two sponsors took me up on it. The first sponsor, Tom, has donated to the WaT several times now and has delighted in making me watch everything from classic SF that I’ve never seen (Dune) to laughably terrible movies about Big Foot that no one should see (Night of the Demon). Today, however, we’ll be discussing a film I have watched before, albeit not in a very long time: the late 90’s SF neo-noir, Dark City.

To my relief, it actually holds up pretty well.

Year: 1998
Director: Alex Proyas
First Watch or Rewatch: Rewatch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Personal Collection DVD (Director’s Cut)
Spoilers: Yep

1. Okay, so not everything holds up: the special effects, for instance? Yeah. I’m *sob* old now, so I remember when Dark City was some cutting edge stuff. That, whew. That is no longer the case. But that’s okay! After all, there’s nothing quite like going back to watch a 90’s SF/F/H film and feeling that ‘oh, you’ fondness in your heart for the hilarious CGI.

2. In terms of plot, acting, design, and tone, though, I still really enjoy this movie. It gets off to an excellent start, too, because–as much as writers are warned against beginning a story with a character waking up–I’m actually a huge sucker for an amnesiac protagonist waking up in a strange, dangerous place and having to figure out who the fuck they are and how they fuck they got there. And, in this case, also: holy shit, did I kill someone? It’s a fun and quick way to get invested in the puzzle–a setup that works especially well in video games, but also movies and books–and I’m totally here for it.

. . . At least, that’s true in the Director’s Cut, anyway, which is the version I watched for this review. Somehow, I’d completely forgotten that the theatrical version has opening narration by Kiefer Sutherland that completely spoils the whole mystery in under two minutes, like, what the actual fuck, studios? This is completely unacceptable.

3. The cast here is interesting, too, because a couple of our actors are playing spectacularly against type. Rufus Sewell, for instance, is playing a good guy. Yeah. Like, I’m not saying that’s never happened before, but come on. This is not what the dude’s known for. Although, admittedly, John Murdoch isn’t exactly a Clark Kent type–hardly surprising, given the genre. 100% Lawful Good heroes are seldom introduced as possible serial killers. Still, John is the Chosen One of this story, and I enjoy Sewell in the role. High marks for panicked, weary, and WTF reaction faces.

Dark City is also very atypical for Kiefer Sutherland, who spent much of the 80’s and 90’s playing assholes/psychopathic little creeps before becoming an action hero in the aughts. (Again, exceptions obviously apply, but yeah, not that many of them.) Dr. Schreber, OTOH, is a weird mix of mad scientist, hero’s mentor, and villainous collaborator, which makes him something of an unusual character even before you get to Sutherland’s odd decision to deliver every line in a breathy rasp with weird Shatner pauses. (I kind of enjoy it, TBH, but I couldn’t tell you why because I certainly don’t buy it. Like, if this is supposed to be indicative of a respiratory condition or something? Yeah, no, you’d expect to hear a sharp inhale on those pauses, wouldn’t you? A whistle from the lungs? Something?) Line deliveries aside, I just kinda enjoy watching Sutherland play a morally ambiguous side character who isn’t actually a total dick.

As far as other roles go:

Near as I can tell, Jennifer Connelly’s work ping pongs back and forth between weird genre projects (Labyrinth, Phenomena) and prestige drama (A Beautiful Mind, Requiem for a Dream), so sure, this feels like it fits pretty squarely in her wheelhouse. Sadly, Connelly gets the least to do here: she’s the female lead and primary love interest, who–while a potentially interesting character–makes very few choices that actively affect the plot. She also permanently loses her sense of identity when her memories are replaced, something that’s mostly framed in Dark City as a tragedy for John and his broken heart. And it’s worth noting, too, that Connelly is only one of two plot-relevant female characters. (The other, played by Melissa George in her film debut, is a prostitute who gets murdered, so.) I honestly don’t have a lot of problems with this movie, but the female rep could absolutely be better.

Then we must discuss William Hurt, who, historically, has never done much for me as an actor. (To be fair to Hurt, I haven’t seen any of the films which have actually won him an Oscar or Oscar nomination. To be fair to me, have you watched The Village? That movie’s got problems across the board, I know, but boy, the flattest thing in it is Hurt’s painfully wooden line deliveries.) That all being said, this is easily my favorite role of his to date. Hurt actually seems pretty well suited to a noir detective, especially in a support role. Hell, I even kinda like Inspector Bumstead. Naturally, that means the bastard dies.

Finally, I must mention Richard O’Brien because his casting is simply magnificent.

I dare to dream of a future where I, too, have such an exquisite villain voice. I HEART YOU, MR. HAND.

4. Honestly, I’m not sure how much I really have to say about Dark City. I can list the usual facts: it’s a solid example of SF neo-noir, influenced by by classics such as Blade Runner and Metropolis, likely an influence on films like The Matrix, etc. I enjoy the general atmosphere and shifting architecture of the city, pretty much the whole mood of the film. Also, the Strangers’ aesthetic, which is somewhere between Hellraiser and the Gentlemen from BTVS. Also also, the film’s heavy green tint, which–in Hollywood–usually means either aliens, morgues, or both. It’s not subtle by any means, but hey, I’m not always after subtlety. (Apparently the tint is actually blue in the theatrical version?)

5. Really, what fascinates me most about Dark City is the ending. Because, okay, this is what happens: having defeated the Strangers, John creates the ocean he’s spent so long trying to reach (plus, introduces daylight), and has a bittersweet reunion/meet-cute with Anna, formerly Emma, heavily implying that they’ll once again begin their romance anew.

And really, there’s nothing wrong with that ending; it’s a perfectly nice cap for this film. But also, there’s a ton of potential here for a sequel/followup TV series, like, I can think of so many other stories that could be told after the events of this movie. For example:

5A. Cool, John, you created an ocean! Thematically, that’s very exciting, but ultimately, the only changes you’ve made to your city-ship so far have been aesthetic: design and architectural shit. What happens when something internal breaks? What happens if you run out of fuel or life support? And where, exactly, is the food coming from, anyway? John Murdoch defeated the bad guys, but now, as only one of two humans who knows the truth (and the only person who can tune), he needs to learn how to keep his people alive.

5B. Of course, what if John isn’t the only one who can tune? Surely, if this is the next leap forward in human evolution (she said, in Patrick Stewart’s voice), then others would start developing this ability, too. What if John mentored those people? What if those people turned against him? What if John got his own Magneto? What would happen to the city-ship if people kept continuously changing the landscape to suit their own visions of what the world should be? You work at that diner on the corner? Whoops, not anymore; some schmuck with powers decided he’d rather that whole street be his personal gym. Better luck next time!

5C. Also, consider the mass existential crisis that would unfold if everyone (not just John and Doc Schreber) learned that they’d been kidnapped by aliens, imprisoned on a space ship, and–oh yeah–had swapped memories so many times that there was absolutely no way to figure out who they’d been born as. It’d be pretty interesting to see such a sequel from Anna’s POV, actually. But also, I’d really just love to see this as a whole ensemble. There are so many ways to explore concepts of identity in such a setup; plus, just imagine the sheer angst of it all.

I can’t help but be amused, too, by the idea of some Big Twist Prequel. (Me! Interested in a prequel? Who even am I, these days?) Like, it would never, ever happen in a million years, but can you imagine watching some random humans vs. aliens movie, only to watch the aliens abduct a whole bunch of humans at the end, and realize that, holy shit, this is a shared universe now, and these aliens are, like, disguised Strangers about to embark on their giant memory-swap experiment for the human soul?

Obviously, Kiefer Sutherland would have to cameo. Hopefully, all of them, actually.

6. Finally, some random notes:

6A. Dark City was directed by Alex Proyas, who has something of an uneven directorial track record. On one hand, there’s this and The Crow. (There will always be some love in my wannabe-goth heart for The Crow.) OTOH, there is I, Robot and Gods of Egypt, and while I mostly remember I, Robot for being deeply generic, Gods of Egypt just looked BAD. (Although, I did just realize I was mixing up Gods of Egypt with Exodus: Gods and Kings, but . . . yeah, they still both look pretty bad. Similar whitewashing problems, too.)

6B. Inspector Bumstead’s death is actually pretty surprising. It’s not so much that he died, but how it happened, with so little fanfare and so soon after the Big Reveal. Like, everyone’s barely had time to think, holy shit, we’re surrounded by SPAAAACE before boom, the detective is dead. There’s something inherently lonely about a death like this, too, a body forever lost, eternally floating through the dark.

6C. I’m kinda amazed that Dr. Schreber lived through this movie.

6D. Injecting your hero with a life’s worth of memories/psychic power tutorials is actually a super clever way of giving your hero the upper hand at the last minute. (Strong “I know kung fu” vibes from this scene, too.)

6E. While John seems to be doing humanity a solid, turning the ship so that everyone can experience daylight for the first time in God knows how long . . . are we sure that people are even physically prepared for the sun? Is there an alternate ending where everyone woke up, looked outside, and promptly went blind?

6F. Finally, I really like how Dark City intentionally uses clothes and technology and architecture from a bunch of different eras so that the audience never has a firm grasp on what decade this is. That being said, I was immediately (if briefly) thrown out of the story when Jennifer Connelly begins singing in what’s maybe a 40’s style dress that also seems to be an exceedingly 90’s green color. It was a full record scratch. My brain shut down, all, Wait, WHAT? What fresh hell is this?

CONCLUSIONS:

22 years later, this is still a solidly entertaining film. Worth a rewatch, or checking out if you’re an SF fan who’s never seen it before.

MVP:

Hm, I’m torn. Richard O’Brien, maybe? I enjoy Kiefer in this a lot, too, though, which I suspect puts me in the minority.

TENTATIVE GRADE:

Either a B+ or an A-

MORAL:

Your soul doesn’t exist in just your brain.

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