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A 1998 science fiction film directed by Alex Proyas.

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A Clockwork Universe

  • May 17, 2011
  • by
Rating:
+5
I once read a story by Philip K. Dick - I can't remember the name of it for the life of me - in which a large organization would periodically stop the world and a team would go in and make adjustments, changing little this-and-that details around. The people in this world had no idea this was going on.

Dark City operates under what is kind of this same concept. There's a group of people who live under the ground. When the clock strikes, they put everyone to sleep, go out, and adjust their entire world. When the people wake up, everything is totally normal to them, nothing has changed in their eyes. They go about their daily lives without a care in the world. Day in and day out, they're living in the here and now, concerned only with the present goings-on in their own lives, only delving into their memories for whatever fond remembrances they can dig out for conversational purposes.

All, that is, except John Murdoch. John is our main character, and one day he randomly wakes up in a hotel he can't remember ever walking into. There are six hookers who are dead (why does it always have to be hookers?) and he's the primary suspect. He has no idea who he is, what happened, or anything about the series of events that led to him waking up from a nap naked in a bathtub. What he does know is that someone named Dr. Schreber absolutely must get in touch with him yesterday, and he is inexplicably drawn toward a place called Shell Beach, where he remembers growing up. And he has a feeling he isn't going to like what he learns.

Dark City haunts us with a mix of science fiction, classic film noir, and an existential search for meaning which, to say the least, is gutsy as hell. The movie, in fact, does not have a single day scene until the final shot. The clothing styles look like something out of one of Humphrey Bogart's early movies. The cityscape is grimy and gritty, with tightly packed traffic and rickety elevated trains darting passengers to and fro, brick walls at the end of every dark alley, and flickering neon signs. Every bad guy wears a trench coat, Dr. Schreber's true intentions and loyalties are always in question, and Detective Bumstead, who pursues John to bring him to justice over the hookers who have been killed, is clad in a fedora. John's wife is a lounge singer who apparently went out and had an affair, and according to the backstory, John left their house in a rage over it. Underground, enormous crowds of people mentally push twisty new buildings into the city above. Doors appear out of nowhere in solid surfaces. This nameless city appears to have a comic book influence straight out of Gotham.

The trail of dead hookers of course immediately puts him into the eye of Detective Bumstead, a no-nonsense private eye who gives you the feeling that he's waiting for a dame with great gams to stroll into his office. Bumstead pursues John constantly, but eventually John takes a stand against him by offering a simple challenge which totally floors Bumstead. Bumstead is actually intrigued by John's idea, and eventually he forgets about the dead hookers altogether.

Soon, John learns that he has mental powers. For the most part he seems a little afraid of what he can do with them, but he also finds them helpful in escaping and fighting The Strangers, mysterious beings who are the ones doing the time stopping and reality altering. As he moves along, he begins piecing together his past and learns something very disturbing. I don't want to spoil too much, so I won't reveal this twist, but it forces John to eventually stop asking questions about not just himself but the very world he lives in upon coming to a few nasty realizations which apparently he's been the only one thinking about. John is so distraught by his slow fitting of the pieces that he even forgets he's mad at his wife.

People of course believe John is losing his mind, John has a lot of other people tell his he's right on the money, and he doesn't know which of the people walking up to him and introducing themselves out of the blue he should trust. In true Philip K. Dick fashion, the entire concept of the fabric of reality is torn asunder and reshaped. The moment John stands in horror in front of the ultimate answer is in fact such a knockout that the final battle of Dark City, which comes a few minutes afterward, feels somewhat anticlimactic - and that's some trick, considering the obvious effort put into it.

John feels like a real character. When the movie begins, he's alone and confused, and as he goes on, he gives off the sense that he doesn't particularly want to learn the answer to this mystery. He descends into distrust and paranoia, and by the end he is clearly only pursuing the universal truth to get a sense of closure on what he started. You get the sense while watching Dark City that John, were he in the famous red pill/blue pill situation from The Matrix, would have taken the red pill and been the one later asking himself why he didn't take the blue pill. But he also wants to know something about his newfound powers because they just suddenly appeared out of nowhere, and he doesn't know anything about them, how dangerous they are, whether they're good or evil or whether they'll turn him evil.

There's a lot of talk about collective power and the freedom of the individual in Dark City, but it just felt a little bit out of place. The Strangers talk and are talked about as being in need of souls so they can feel and think like the humans they're chasing. I don't see where individual rights run hand in hand with souls, and all the talk about the whole concept brought a sliver of high-handed Messiah fantasy to what is otherwise a very pure, hard science fiction story.

A common complaint about movies is that there's so little original material on the table these days. The set designs are great visionary achievements, but when you get caught up in a story as intense, challenging, and haunting as the story of Dark City, it's hard to notice the visuals. With so many movies relying purely on the strength of their special effects to draw box office these days, a compliment like that can really stand out. In that respect, Dark City stands among the real imaginative special effects movies - Inception, The Orphanage, or Pan's Labyrinth. If you're a science fiction nut who hasn't seen it yet, you don't know what you're missing.

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May 17, 2011
This is probably one of my top 3 favorite science fiction films of the past 20 years along with "12 Monkeys" and "Donnie Darko". Great review!
 
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More Dark City (1998 film) reviews
Quick Tip by . December 29, 2012
posted in Movie Hype
I thought about this movie a little more, and it's actually worse than I initially thought.      Thanks to the extremely hokey acting (Kiefer Sutherland's Peter Lorre impressions alone will make anyone cry tears of blood), bland characters, totally non-scary villains, silly plot devices, and liberal ripping off of elements from movies like Akira, Total Recall, Metropolis, Batman (the 1989 movie), and The Addams Family, I was nearly bored to the point of falling asleep …
review by . July 08, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
I heard about this movie several years back and it looked pretty interesting and I was fairly impressed by the large amounts of positive reviews it got, and luckily for me, I found the whole movie on YouTube, so I didn't even have to invest one dollar at the local Family Video. I finally found the time to watch it about a month ago and boy was this a deplorable flick.      STORY      The story for Dark City is that John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) finds himself …
review by . July 13, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
It's difficult to describe Dark City without giving anything away.  Really the only way to give a review of Dark City is to describe the after shock.      It's one of those films that completely engrosses the viewer until the credits roll and then you are left just completely baffled by what just happened to you.  You sit and think on it for a while and just say "woah" out loud and realize you have watched a masterpiece and the only thing you can do …
review by . December 17, 2008
posted in Movie Hype
The Strangers attack Murdoch...
When it comes down to it, a large part of who we are comes from our collective experiences, from our past, from our memories. But what if our memories weren't our own? What if all of our experiences were generic? What if our pasts had been manufactured? Would it then be possible to manipulate us through our memories? Luckily, no one has that power... or do they?          John Murdoch awakens to find himself naked and vulnerable. He has no memory of his past or of his …
review by . October 01, 2008
posted in Movie Hype
A $28 million budget art house film that features several actors who have now ascended the ranks of stardom beat The Matrix to the punch in presenting many on screen concepts that questioned what it is to be human. Very underrated, constantly drifting on the edge of obscurity, Dark City is a magical film that transcends many levels of modern filmmaking with questions of human nature and interactions.     The story follows John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) who wakes up in a bath tub …
review by . July 17, 2006
posted in Movie Hype
Pros: Jennifer Connelly all too briefly…     Cons: Pretty much the whole rest of the movie.     The Bottom Line: Some may find Dark City’s brooding underpinning palatable but the movie left a very unsavory taste in my mouth, one I am not keen to repeat.     Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie''s plot. Okay I will make an admission at the start of this review; the only reason I decided to watch Dark City (1998) …
review by . January 06, 2005
posted in Movie Hype
Truely one of the best Sci-Fi movies of all time. Beautifully brought to life by the entire cast. What can I say, everything is perfect. Top director, superb camera work, great lighting, good actors. If you haven't seen this movie before and you like new ways of looking at the adventure/sci-fi genre with a philosophical twist, this one is for you. You need to have this in your collection. You won't get bored, not even after watching it for the 12th time.
About the reviewer
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Ranked #27
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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Wiki

Dark City is a 1998 neo noir science fiction film directed by Alex Proyas. It was adapted from a screenplay written by Proyas, David S. Goyer and Lem Dobbs. The film stars Rufus Sewell, William Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, and Jennifer Connelly. Sewell plays John Murdoch, a man suffering from amnesia who finds himself accused of murder. Murdoch attempts to discover his true identity to clear his name while on the run from the police and a mysterious group known only as the "Strangers". Dark City asks the question of what it means to be human, and explores the relationship between memory and personal identity in an attempt to answer it.

The majority of the film was shot at Fox Studios Australia. It was jointly produced by New Line Cinema and Mystery Clock Cinema. New Line Cinema and New Line Home Video commercially distributed the theatrical release and home media respectively. The studio was concerned that the audience would not understand the film and asked Proyas to add an explanatory, voice-over narration to the introduction. The film premiered in the United States on February 27, 1998, competing against James Cameron's blockbuster Titanic. Dark City performed poorly at the U.S. box office during its initial release and received mixed reviews.

Following its screening in wide cinematic release, the film was nominated for the Hugo and Saturn Awards. With the help of Roger Ebert and home screenings, the film has since become a cult classic. In the years since its...

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Details

Director: Alex Proyas
Genre: Drama, Film-Noir, Horror, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Release Date: February 27,1998
MPAA Rating: R
DVD Release Date: July 29, 2008
Runtime: 100 minutes
Studio: New Line Cinema
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