Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Dark City (1998)

Title: Dark City: Director’s Cut (1998)

Director: Alex Proyas

Cast: Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly, Kiefer Sutherland, William Hurt, Richard O’Brien  

Dark City was a victim of the Titanic syndrome, an ailment that struck any of the films that were unfortunate enough to be released during the time that James Cameron’s Titanic (1998) was cruising through theaters. But let’s face it, Titanic wasn’t the only element Dark City had going against it. To begin with, Dark City is a dark brooding film that most people would find either: a) boring b) confusing or c) too talky. But for the right group of people, Dark City would prove to be an engrossing, gothic tale of lost identities and discovering one’s true self, one’s true potential. You see, this is the story of John Murdoch, a man who wakes up one day, not knowing who he is. He does know one thing though: something is seriously wrong in this city! You see, a strange thing happens when the clocks strike twelve; everyone in the city falls asleep and things begin to change. Literally, the whole city begins to contort and twist until by the end of the event, the city is completely different, and as the city changes, so do the people who inhabit it. At one point you might have been a humble blue collar worker, but by the end of the change, you might end up being a member of high society. Strange beings dressed in black go around the city changing things, what’s really going on here? And why doesn’t John Murdock fall under the spell that everybody seems to be so susceptible to? Is there something special about John Murdoch?

Dark City was yet another one of those movies that studios don’t know how to sell. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about films is that when a studio and a director get cold feet, the movie will suffer.  The problem is the general feeling of uncertainty as to how audiences will receive the film. Once this happens, the studio looses faith in the project and they won’t market it properly, because they figure what’s the point of spending money in a movie they think will tank? On top of that, the filmmaker looses faith in his original vision which usually means he or she will edit the film down to a more digestible form, dumbing it down in hopes that audiences will “get it”. A similar thing happened with Ridley Scott’s fantasy film, Legend (1985). When Scott turned in his cut of Legend and showed it to a test audience, the film scored horribly. Scott, terrified that his movie would tank edited the film down, shot a couple of new scenes to make the film “cooler” and added the more contemporary Tangerine Dream soundtrack as opposed to the original classical score. Sadly, the film tanked anyways. In situations like these, I think it’s best for directors to stick to their guns and their original artistic vision. But they never do, because when there’s so many millions of dollars at stake, everybody gets cold feet. Especially when this is your second film and you want to establish yourself as a profitable filmmaker the way Proya’s was at the time of making Dark City.

So Alex Proyas made the changes he had to in order to make Dark City more digestible to audiences. He added in a voice over that “explained” everything before hand to audiences, not unlike the voice over that was added to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). I’m using Ridley Scott as an example a lot because he is a director that has faced this situation often, making a film that studios are uncertain of. Weird thing with films like this is that years pass, the film becomes a cult classic and then the inevitable “director’s cut” of the film is released, which is what happened with Dark City.  People discovered it on home video after its initial theatrical release and then got its directors cut. The changes aren’t all that huge, but they do make the film more complete. The biggest changes I detected were the elimination of the introductory voice over, some scenes are longer, with more expository dialog, also Jennifer Connelly actually sings with her own voice in her night club scenes, as opposed to getting her voiced dubbed the way it was in the theatrical cut.

The film is strong both visually and thematically. Yet when it was released, its stylish gothic visuals brought some critics to actually label Dark City as style over substance type of film, which couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything this movie is all about substance. Society is being analyzed by those in power, who constantly shift things around. Those scenes in which the whole city landscape twists and contorts are representative of the constant urban renewals. In the film, society sleeps while those in power, hiding behind shadows and darkness manipulate everything, if that isn’t representative of the world we live in, I don’t know what is. The main character, John Murdoch speaks volumes about those of us who are awake, those of us who aren’t sheep, we know something isn’t right. The main character is confused, because life is a mystery, but he moves on, searching for that ultimate truth. I love the fact that he gets things done because he develops mental powers, literally making things happen by using his brains. What Alex Proyas is speaking about here is not conforming, not being a follower but rather, that we should take control of our lives, literally changing our surroundings until we find ultimate happiness. But there’s always that constant search for the truth inspite of all the distractions and the muddled facts.

Dark City is not without influences. It reminded me of Metropolis (1927) (something that Roger Ebert, a staunch defender of Dark City also agrees with) because the city is a like a main character. Same as Fritz Lang’s amazing futuristic vistas in Metropolis, a lot was put into making Dark City’s titular city a wonder to behold. Alex Proyas mixed old school filmmaking techniques with some new ones by using miniatures, paintings and computer generated images to bring this mysterious Dark City to life. The art direction is outstanding, Proya’s use of lights and shadows and the wardrobe makes everything look retro with lots of film noir going for it. Thematically speaking they have similarities as well because both films deal with class issues, albeit in different ways; for example in Metropolis society is presented with the idea that the rich and powerful and the working class should work together for the benefit of all, a sort of idealistic take on the matter, while Dark City takes a diametrically opposed stance, it wants to wake up the sleeper, the worker bee. It proposes the idea of waking up the sleeping masses so that they can become masters of their own destiny, cutting through all the bull crap that was inserted in their mind from inception. So as you can see, the film is not a flimsy one, it has lots to say. Top all that with a great cast, including Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly, Kiefer Sutherland and William Hurt and astonishing gothic art direction and you’ve got yourselves a winner of a movie meant to be enjoyed for generations to come.

Rating: 5 out of 5  


Maurice Mitchell said...

A brilliant and underrated film and I'll have to look for the director's cut since it sounds like a great film made even better.

Franco Macabro said...

If you love Dark City, then you'll love the directors cut, it's got more to the story, like those scenes where he visits his uncle, they don't feel so choppy, there's more exposition, everything takes its time now.

I had always noticed that about the theatrical cut of Dark City, at times it felt choppy, like there was something missing. Not anymore!

SFF said...

Sorry I'm late to write but I wanted to tell you I loved your thoughtful review of Dark City.

It's definitely a favorite of mine.

I also would add, Scott's amazing films aside, Legend, director's cut or not, just isn't nearly as good a film as Dark City. Legend looks amazing but is sorely lacking. I guess it's just one of those films that didn't really work for me. I LOVE Blade Runner and Alien but Legend is a let down.

Dark City, on the other hand, is amazing.

Your political assessments on the picture are always interesting. Some places in the country are never renewed and Detroit is a great example completely in a stranglehold by Democratic control. But again it does point to the fact that the powerful on either side are corrupt beyond words.

Loved the review.

RVChris said...

Great write-up Francisco! I also love Dark City and have seen both the theatrical and director's cuts. I prefer the director's cut but didn't think the difference between the two was that big. Although Dark City was unappreciated in its original release I'm glad it has finally been getting recognition as a great film.

Franco Macabro said...

@ Sci-Fi Fanatic, I'm a huge fan of Ridley Scott's Legend, to me it's an inmmersive experience, I go into that world because Scott makes it so visually rich and alive. To me it's one of the best fantasy films ever...I mean, wow, the make up effects work is amazing, the art's just a solid movie in my book.

The only reason I compared it to Dark City was because of how the director of both films decided to change it because they were both afraid of how audiences would react to it.

I hear ya about corrupt governments, what I hate is how sometimes governments will cater to the rich, and forget about the poor or stampede all over them for that matter. For example, in some countries, governments will let one area die and turn into a desolated area, just so they can renew it in a couple of years and turn it into something more exclusive i.e. more expensive. Agree on the corruption, it's a sad thing that never seems to go away, or improve, it only gets stronger.

@RVChris: Agree, the differences are not that big, between directos cut and theatrical cut, with the directors cut, things feel just a bit more coherent.


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