Dark City (1998)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #621


Number of Views: One
Release Date: February 27, 1998
Sub-Genre: Neo-Noir/Sci-Fi
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $27,000,000
Box-Office: $27,200,000
Running Time: 100 minutes
Director: Alex Proyas
Producers: Andrew Mason, Alex Proyas
Screenplay: Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs, David S. Goyer
Production Design: Patrick Tatopoulos
Visual Effects: Mara Bryan, Arthur Windus
Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski
Score: Trevor Jones
Editing: Dov Hoenig
Studio: Mystery Clock Cinema
Distributor: New Line Cinema
Stars: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, Richard O’Brien, Ian Richardson, William Hurt, Bruce Spence, Colin Friels, John Bluthal, Melissa George, Ritchie Singer, Nicholas Bell, David Wenham, Mitchell Butel


Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Anita Kelsey “Sway”

[2] Trevor Jones “Sleep Now”

[3] Gary Numan “Dark”

[4] Trevor Jones “You Have The Power”

[5] Trevor Jones “The Strangers Are Tuning”


What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever woke up in? A park bench? Gutter? Stranger’s bed? Shipping crate headed for Peru? I can count myself decidedly provident here as, while I’ve wound up in some odd locales (usually as a result of my own excess), there comes a point when I make my excuses and scuttle off home to an environment far less ambiguous. There’s no substitute for your own cozy quarters after all. Once I awaken groggy the following morning, my primary instinct is to exhale a tremendous sigh of relief as I’ve never really fancied Peru and have heard bad things happen in the gutter. Suddenly it all comes flooding back to me in rancid Technicolor. If memory serves (and I pray to the heavens that it’s on strike at this point), then I stripped down to my socks in a service station and recited Kum Ba Yah in D-minor. Amnesia would be my friend in these circumstances but regrettably for me, it swears blind that it never met me before.


One person who can empathize is John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), a man who I can’t tell you much about as that’s more than he could relay himself at this present moment. Of all the places to wake up groggy, a hotel bathtub isn’t the most mortifying by a long chalk, although the lack of any idea how he arrived here and broken hypodermic needle on the floor is a tad discombobulating. Mercifully he isn’t left hanging for too long before receiving a phone call from some doctor by the name of Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), who seems markedly more in the know than he and is promptly informed to skedaddle before things get decidedly uncomfortable for him.


Nice try fella but John has already clocked the stone cold cadaver of a once delectable dame who appears to have been ritualistically snuffed out, alongside a bloody knife to further set the crime scene. The group of strange men downstairs in the lobby preparing to pay him a visit will have to find some other chump to trump as there’s a shipping crate to Peru leaving the dock in fifteen minutes and it’s starting to look like a more attractive proposition for Mr. Murdoch. Okay so I lied about the crate but… Are you still here John? Flee damn you, FLEE! What’s that you say? I dunno, try the fire escape, that usually works. Honestly you’d think he’d forgotten what imminent peril is.


To be fair, he has a slight inkling and does precisely that, displaying a canny sense of awareness I might add. Better yet he has now ascertained his own name and also vaguely recalls having a wife, a sultry siren songbird named Emma (Jennifer Connelly). It has to be said if I were married to Connelly, it would be the first thing I remembered too, although it’s not all good news for John.


You see, in addition to the strangers currently sniffing his perspiration trail, he is also being sought after by dogged police inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) in connection with a series of brutal murders around the sprawling metropolis he is attempting to navigate. With the mysterious Schreber in his ear drip-feeding information in an attempt not to overload his server, John’s best bet for surviving the night seems to be playing detective. If only the sheepish residents of this big city had the faintest clue how to access such bright lights.


One dude who certainly ain’t bashful is bald-domed brute Mr. Hand (Richard O’Brien) and his similarly inhospitable cronies. Whatever the systematically anxious Schreber knows, Hand and his associates are privy to also, but more inclined to cut straight to the chase, something they do with some tenacity. This would be the time when an ordinary douche tosses in his pair of 6’s and prays that the flop is kind but not John Murdoch as there’s more about this cat than he’s even prepared to let onto himself.


Uppermost on his relatively skimpy list of desires is to head on back to the coastal town of Shell Beach which is as far back as his recollections will take him. With precious little adding up to anything other than a jumble of random numerals, the missus acting decidedly cagey, Bumstead hot on his heels, and The Black Hand Gang dragging their noxious fingernails up his trouser leg, it’s got to be the most appetizing option right?


Intrigued yet? If I’ve earned my rupees and you don’t already happen to be on personal terms with Alex Proyas’ nimble neo-noir sci-fi paradox, Dark City, then the answer will be a resounding uh huh and that’s all the synopsis you’ll get from me as I can’t actually remember the rest. Sorry I couldn’t resist that one, it’s as clear as Ice Man’s crystallized balls, but revealing more would make Shell Beach a less fascinating prospect to visit first-hand and Murdoch has been kind enough to share his amnesia so it only seems fair that we put in the remaining legwork. Trust me when I say that you shouldn’t be regretting it.


If we’re going to undertake this journey, one that initially reflects Murdoch’s own fragmented mindset and embellishes very little about the bigger picture it is painting until the time comes to reveal all, then we need a lead protagonist capable of piquing our curiosity and Sewell turns out to be the ideal choice if not the most obvious. He takes this challenging role in his stride and, on this evidence, it is baffling that he hasn’t since gone on to greater things as the development of his character is fascinating and that is largely down to a job very well done on his part. You really get a sense of his confusion but also, with every piece of the puzzle that slots into place, of his gradual awakening from nomadic nondescript to key player in the bizarre and stifling world he inhabits.


Connelly has to be content with playing the woman-in-distress role but still manages to have a seductive charm about her that makes it impossible to look away every time she graces us with her presence, while Hurt is in his element as hard-boiled gumshoe Bumstead and becomes an incalculable ally to Murdoch once the plot begins to unravel. O’Brien couldn’t be better cast (in a part custom-made for his every eccentricity) as the chrome-skulled cretin with something to say about every last memory John possesses and there’s a great sense of impending doom whenever he lurches forth from the shadows, with his similarly alarming associates in tow.


However, perhaps the most outré performance comes from Sutherland, who divided opinion with his portrayal of the wonky-eyed almost weasel-like Schreber. I’m firmly in the pro-Kiefer camp as he stutters and twitches his way through every line of dialogue like a rat caught in a maze and effortlessly transcends caricature. This is as far from Jack Bauer as his fans will ever have seen him and it’s great to see Sutherland playing a role that’s so diverse. Granted, it may seem a stretch at first, given his crooked posture and nervy demeanor, but his character calls for every last quirk and he delivers open-handedly.


Then there’s the production design and what Patrick Tatopoulos creates with the hub in question (constructed entirely on-set), is truly astonishing. The influence of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Tim Burton’s Batman, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, is plain to see and the stunning cityscape serves as an exquisite extension of Murdoch’s own subconscious. There is no familiarizing yourself with the layout as it is constantly transmogrifying before our eyes, coming across as a collection of different locations fused together, and you get the impression that no amount of breadcrumbs dropped will ever see you return to the same place.


The pulsating score from Trevor Jones is just as pivotal to proceedings as it barely allows us a solitary second to catch our breath and is every bit as giddy and mesmerizing as the visual flash on exhibit. Indeed, the entire package is unthinkably slick and consistently arresting, both optically and otherwise. As with Proyas’s previous film, The Crow, the hyper-stylized sandbox we are penned into is one of moral ambiguity, reminiscent of a dark graphic novel, and populated with anti-heroes as opposed to clean-cut do-gooders, making for a far more edgy experience which possibly explains why it struggled to locate an audience upon its release and is only just receiving anything like the credit it so richly deserves.


Dark City may come across as initially frosty and unwelcoming, bamboozling its addressee at every turn and seemingly struggling to hit any kind of sustainable rhythm. However, this is fully intentional on the director’s part, as he’s never looking to let the viewer settle and wants us to feel off-kilter. In this respect, he provides a much more intimate foray into the cluttered head space of its protagonist. As for the elusive Shell Beach that John Murdoch seeks so obstinately, just remember that the reality is not always quite as picture perfect as the postcard suggests.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Grue Factor: 2/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Chalky spook Mr. Hand and his no-nonsense entourage sure don’t mess around when it comes to getting the job done and, while splatter is at a premium, there are a number of bruising interactions throughout, the most grisly of which entail the disassembly of the strangers themselves. On the skin front, we are gifted the finger-licking Melissa George who, in a minor early role, provides a most generous eyeful of her exquisite wares. John Murdoch’s task may be a generally thankless one but, watching Ms. George tantalizingly disrobe beyond that beaded curtain, I found myself more than willing to step into his shoes.

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Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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1 Comment

  1. I love this kind of neo noir world. It sounds like a bit of Sin City with some horror elements thrown in. I do wonder about Rufus Sewell and how he started out with so much promise and now you barely hear from him. It would be nice to see Kiefer flex his acting muscles. After all, he is over 50 now and when does that action hero shit get tired? William Hurt is one of my crushes from the 80s. I love his acting style. Jennifer Connelly is always intriguing. This is a film I need to check out.

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