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DVD Review: Dark City (Director’s Cut)

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Australian filmmaker Alex Proyas’s 1998 film Dark City has been compared to many prior science fiction films, from Metropolis to Blade Runner, but, simply put, it’s better than those films. The comparison to Blade Runner, especially, is inapt, because that film is all style and little substance — a claim made of Dark City, but, in truth, the film is mostly substance, with style about the edges. Yet, the style is so memorable that viewers and critics have had a hard time realizing it is a film that is original fiction, and not based upon a comic strip, as the urban legend goes.

I first saw the film in theaters, over a decade ago, and watched the theatrical version on DVD a couple of times since. But, having heard that there was a new Director’s Cut coming to DVD, I thought it a good time to explore the film, and its alterations, another reason why the fans of sci fi link this film to Blade Runner.

Before I detail the changes to the film, which increased in length from about 95 to 105 minutes, let me go over the basics of the narrative. A man named John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes in a hotel bathtub, and cannot recall even his name at first. He has just awakened while a man named Dr. Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) has tried to inject false memories into his brain, with a large alien syringe, as part of a plot with a group of aliens called The Strangers. These are worm-like energy beings who revive the corpses of the human dead, thus are bald and Nosferatu-like in appearance. The Strangers control a city that never sees sunlight, and seems to span era of American film history from the 1930s through the 1970s (and it’s important to note that the city is not a blend of reality from those decades, but the film-based ‘realities’ of those times — a point no critic seems to have seen). They also recalibrate people’s memories every night at midnight, to test how humans are human. They are from a species that is dying and needs to reinvigorate itself via the human factor. This meme, incidentally, is a staple of early UFO contactee mythos, as well as the later alien abduction mythos, and has been iterated in film since the late 1940s, most famously in classic sci fi B films of the 1950s.

Murdoch is one of the rare humans to ever have awakened during the nightly ‘tuning,’ as The Strangers call their resetting of reality; which also includes changing physical reality via a vast underground complex of machinery. As he finds himself in the hotel, Murdoch seems to have killed a prostitute; but it’s simply the scenario Schreber and The Strangers set up for him. He flees, and discovers that he, too, has incipient tuning powers, and tests himself by visiting a local prostitute — a gorgeous blond, played by Melissa George, who reveals a perfect figure in a brief nude scene. The prostitute’s very gorgeousness plus the fact that she has a young daughter both reveal the film-based element of the scenarios The Strangers use, since most prostitutes are not gorgeous, nor do they have the ‘heart of gold’ personae that allows them to care for young daughters while they ‘entertain’ clients. The Strangers seem to have derived all of their information – or misinformation (thus their confusion over humans) – from thinking human films were all documentaries, not fictions. After leaving the prostitute, after seeing her daughter, Murdoch ends up at his estranged wife’s apartment.

She is Emma (Jennifer Connelly), and apparently she cheated on him three weeks earlier, causing him to flee and become a killer. Rather, that is what The Strangers and Schreber want him to believe. He is also being sought by a police detective named Frank Bumstead (William Hurt). After fighting with The Strangers on top of a billboard, and seeing several of them die, revealing their true nature in the process, Murdoch is eventually caught by Bumstead, as he seeks to go to his childhood home of Shell Beach — a place that does not exist, but which all the residents of the city have a vague memory of. Murdoch tries to convince him that the city never sees the sun, and shows that Bumstead has no recent memories of daylight.

The Strangers, led by Mr. Hand (Richard O’Brien), come to retrieve Murdoch, for they are concerned his powers could rival theirs, as well as ruin their plans for human study. They also, however, believe he could be the key to their understanding. Mr. Hand, who has now been injected by Schreber with the false memories that were supposed to go to Murdoch, is especially keen on capturing Murdoch, as well as with carrying out the murders Murdoch was scheduled to do. Schreber, meanwhile, plans to betray The Strangers and help Murdoch defeat them. He is eventually caught by Murdoch and Bumstead, and leads them to the brick wall at the end of the city that represents Shell Beach. Murdoch and Bumstead break through the wall with sledgehammers and discover they are in a vast floating spaceship designed to look like a city. Bumstead and one of The Strangers end up getting killed and falling into outer space, when The Strangers arrive to confront Murdoch. Murdoch surrenders to Mr. Hand, who holds Emma hostage.

Now caught, Schreber is to imprint Murdoch with the collective consciousness of The Strangers, so that they can experience humanity, but he betrays them, by injecting Murdoch with a lifetime’s worth of training in how to use his tuning abilities to battle The Strangers. In a deft show of narrative control, the syringe with the training memories had earlier been confiscated by Murdoch and put in his coat pocket when he and Bumstead had captured Schreber. Now, as The Strangers shut down their machinery forever, a brief sleight of hand by Schreber has him slip his hand in Murdoch’s coat and use the training memories, not the collective consciousness of The Strangers.

This empowers Murdoch, who breaks free from the grip of The Strangers and starts a final battle with the leader of The Strangers, Mr. Book (Ian Richardson), whom he defeats in Armageddon-like fashion. Murdoch then finds out that Emma has been erased and all the serums Schreber used were also destroyed in the battle. He seeks out Emma, now Anna, after creating a city-encircling ocean (not unlike the World Ocean of yore, when Europeans thought the world a disk bounded by an ocean one could fall off the edge of), and Shell Beach. In a famous scene from the film, one that Jennifer Connelly has become famed for, we see her character, from behind, standing at the end of a long pier. This almost identical shot was repeated in the later films Requiem For A Dream and House Of Sand And Fog. Murdoch then asks her where Shell Beach is and Anna points to it, and then asks him to come with her. The film ends with the two heading there.

Now, on to the differences in the original theatrical release and the Director’s Cut. Other than the aforementioned lengthening of the film, there is the loss of the opening voiceover by Kiefer Sutherland. Proyas and the other members of the creative team all think this improves the film, but since we learn of what is stated in the film’s voiceover within the first twenty or so minutes, and it bears little on the film’s ending, the voiceover is really a non-issue, dramatically. In Blade Runner, for instance, the cheesy voiceover at film’s end adds to the film by leavening many of the trite and mawkish scenes that are viewed with an almost PoMo and unwitting self-deprecation. That’s not true, in this instance. In short, its loss does not remove any of the pop from the film’s ‘mystery.’

In fact, one could argue that the opening voiceover actually does more to make the film ambiguous than does the Director’s Cut. Why? Because Sutherland’s voice actually notes that The Strangers took these people from our small, blue world, meaning Earth. Thus, the surprise when Murdoch and Bumstead bust through the brick wall into outer space is more of a shock, because we have seemingly been told we are on earth. In the Director’s Cut, sans that statement, there always seems to be something ‘off’ and artificial about the city, so the notion that it is a large spaceship is not quite as dramatic. Some opening scenes that show the city asleep during a tuning are moved to later in the film, and, again, this is a non-issue, since the tuning at film’s opening only makes sense if the voiceover is there. The effects showing Murdoch’s ability to tune are not as glaring from early on in the film any longer. This makes it seem as if Murdoch is learning his powers as he goes along. A slight plus, possibly, but, since the early evidence of his tuning ability comes in uncontrolled moments, wouldn’t a fierce burst be evident?

There are other minor effects enhancements, and more of an insistence on featuring the spiral motif of the killer persona Murdoch was supposed to get. Also, Bumstead seems more equivocal in the added scenes we see of him. Finally, during the singing scenes, Jennifer Connelly’s real voice is used, not Anita Kelsey’s. Finally, the changes seem more akin to those made in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now/Apocalypse Now Redux recut — the film is longer, but still of the same generally high quality. Had Proyas not held on to his pet peeves, no one would have uttered a complaint about anything missing from the original film.

Technically, the film makes much of a relatively austere budget; it looks much more high tech than it was. The screenplay, by Proyas, David Goyer, and Lem Dobbs, is superb and in the DVD commentaries and documentaries each man does a good job of delineating his touch. It is claimed that Dark City has one of the shortest cut lengths in film history — less than two seconds per cut, yet it is a tribute to the actual tale the film tells that these cuts are not a major factor in the film, unlike so many action films where MTV-like ADD editing substitutes for quality. It also reinforces the idea that film is, indeed, literature with pictures, because if such an accentuated feature of the visual element of the film has so little impact (pro or con) on the tale told, then, surely, the tale told is the heart of the film and, naturally, of all good and great cinema. In short, editing, while in the hands of a master, can be a good tool in shaping a film, in the overwhelming majority of cases it has as much bearing on the final film as the choice of font and type size does on the actual wording and content of a piece of writing. That stated, Dov Hoenig’s obviously serves a purpose without intruding into the tale.

But, more so than the editing, the cinematography of Dariusz Wolski stands out (especially by contrasting the warm browns, greens, and yellows of the city’s overworld to the grays and blues of its underworld), for while Dark City has many influences, it transcends them all, and becomes more the influence than the influenced. In this way, it is a work of art that is a ‘bottleneck.’ It takes all that came before and reconfigures it so that it influences all that came later. Bottleneck art and artists are almost always a sure sign of greatness. Walt Whitman did it in poetry, Henrik Ibsen did it in drama, and films like The Birth Of A Nation, Citizen Kane, and 2001: A Space Odyssey did it in film. It also has, in over a decade, never had a film come close to it. The Matrix? Please — video game pabulum. Look at Blade Runner or any other Philip K. Dick-based films, like Total Recall or Minority Report. Again, these are children’s films in comparison, and lacking in character development. They are films that are truly plot-driven, not character driven, and this is why they usually peter out before the film’s end. And even if they do maintain themselves throughout the film, they are mostly forgotten soon afterward.

But Dark City is also superior to other films considered classic forebears. Metropolis, for all its impact, is still a silent film and slave to the dramatic conventions of that day; there is no emotional realism. Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is too plainly a cartoon and comedy to be considered any real influence. Nosferatu, the silent Fritz Lang version (or even Werner Herzog’s 1970 re-visioning), and other German Expressionist films, have obvious visual parallels to Dark City (most notably the Max Schreck-like Strangers), but are simply not as narratively rich.

Film critic Roger Ebert, who is often oblivious to narrative pluses and minuses, is well known for having declared Dark City 1998’s best film. I would likely give that to Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (at least for American releases), but he is correct when he notes the influence of American painter Edward Hopper on the film, as well as this observation:

Notice an opening shot that approaches the hotel window behind which we meet Murdoch. The window is a circular dome in a rectangular frame. As clearly as possible, it looks like the ‘face’ of Hal 9000 in 2001. Hal was a computer that understood everything, except what it was to be human and have emotions. Dark City considers the same theme in a film that creates a completely artificial world in which humans teach themselves to be themselves. 

The shot may not be a direct quotation from the Kubrick masterpiece, but it does echo my earlier claim that both this film and The Strangers are thoroughly drenched in the cinema of the 20th Century, and seem to have recreated the city in their idée fixee of cinema realities past.

As for the new DVD, the Director’s Cut, put out by New Line, and how it compares with the theatrical version released on DVD a decade ago? Well, first, let me recap the earlier DVD’s features and compare them with the new one’s. The earlier version came with a double-sided DVD for full- and widescreen versions of the film. It had two audio commentaries by Alex Proyas and crew, and by Roger Ebert, filmographies of the cast and crew, a written comparison to the aforementioned Metropolis, an interactive video game called Find Shell Beach, and the theatrical trailer. All in all, considering it came out a decade ago, it was a good package, and needed no updating if the film had not been recut.

The new DVD has only the Director’s Cut. Some reviews claim it has both versions, but if it has the original version it’s a well hidden Easter Egg. This version has a film introduction by Alex Proyas; "Memories Of Shell Beach," a making of featurette; "Architecture Of Dreams," a featurette wherein several people discuss aspects of the film, from psychology to sociology to cinematic influence, and again the influence of Edward Hopper’s paintings is cited. Comic book writer Neil Gaiman reviews the film, there is the theatrical trailer, and there are now three commentaries. The Proyas and Ebert commentaries seem to be updated for the Director’s Cut. Much of it seems to be the same, save with inserted comments of the newer version.

The third track features writers Lem Dobbs, David Goyer, and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, and others. Like the other two tracks, most of this seems culled from the original parts of the commentary a decade ago, with additions made — likely stuff left out then. Dobbs is the most outspoken of the trio, in regards to Hollywood’s flaws and active degradation of the cinematic arts, and it is especially cogent when he exudes disdain for the idea that Tom Cruise wanted to play the film’s lead at one point. He also extols the virtues of the script in films, as the end all and be all that makes or breaks a film — a point echoed, most famously, by screenwriter and director John Huston. Dobbs also relates how he wrote the character of Mr. Hand with Murdoch’s faux memories and why he thinks Jennifer Connelly was too young for the role she got.

One thing not commented on in most reviews is the acting in the film. Unlike Dobbs, I think Connelly did well with her intentionally vaguely drawn character. The two lead Strangers, Mr. Book and Mr. Hand, are well acted by Richardson and O’Brien, especially given the restrictions their characters have. Richardson, especially, shows a reserve of megalomania and, unlike O’Brien’s character, does not have the injection of human emotion to balance his performance. Kiefer Sutherland takes an easily parodic role and makes it work with little subtleties in his performance — the most noteworthy is that Dr. Schreber never uses contractions in the film. But the film is really dominated by Rufus Sewell’s performance. A stage actor of repute, with a few film roles before this, he is so good that it is hard to imagine another actor in the role. His relative anonymity helps, but compare his role to similar roles in films like Cube or The Thirteenth Floor, and the superiority of the screenplay and acting is manifest.

Consider the scene where Murdoch and Emma, through a glass window, express their recognition of love for one another, even as they intellectually realize that they have just met. While implausible, in some sense, the film makes what poet John Keats would call a Negatively Capable leap of illogic. It is one that, in real terms, is silly, but works within the film. After all, if we can suspend our disbelief for all the pseudoscience involved, suspending it for love being more than a product of the material world is not that difficult. While Proyas and Goyer had no problems with this concept, Dobbs claims to not buy it — he feels that one’s soul is, and can only be, the sum of one’s lifetime memories; that home is always in your head. While none of the commentaries would be on my all time best commentaries list, not a one bores, bogs down in minutia, nor rambles too far from what is onscreen. Overall, three good, solid commentaries. The Director’s cut is shown in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

Dark City is a film that will only grow with time, for not only is it a bottleneck work of art, but it’s a transcendent film. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, it transcends the limits of sci fi. Similarly, claims that the film is Gothic, noir, Expressionist, etc. are similarly shortsighted, as well are those which liken the film’s narrative to Kafka or Orwell. The clear progenitor of this film is in fact Rod Serling, creator of the television show The Twilight Zone. But the film makes use of imagery from sources few have ever noticed, from campy predecessors in science fiction — the scene of Murdoch on The Strangers’ wheel is highly derivative of the flying death scenes in Logan’s Run, and the early scenes of The Strangers causing the city to sleep for a tuning, with cars in the middle of traffic-jammed roads, is a steal straight from the opening scenes of Federico Fellini’s . This diversity, however, just proves a point I’ve long made, that greatness is a difference of kind not merely degree.

Great films, and works of art, like Dark City, transcend their natal genres, and join a higher club, for they have more in common with the great films of other genres, than they do with lesser examples of their genre. And, the bottleneck status of Dark City also proves another point. German filmmaker Werner Herzog has long declared that our culture (cinematic or not) is currently starved for images, especially new images for a new age. I’ve never bought that, and a film like Dark City disproves Herzog’s point. Images are always recycled, as are stories, and until mankind gets into outer space and experiences new things, new images are going to be relatively scarce. What I believe Herzog meant, however, was that the old images, stories, and ideas, need to be made re-new, and this is the essence of an artistic bottleneck, be it artwork or artist. The old is all filtered through that bottleneck and presented in new ways, mixed with new things, and, most of all, made better.

As example, Shakespeare improved upon the dramatic archetypes of Greek tragedies, and the modern masters (Ibsen, Shaw, O’Neill) improved on Shakespeare’s often one-dimensional characters and fleshed them out, and set them in ‘real’ situations, rather than the soap operatic melodramas Shakespeare could rarely transcend. It is quality, and quality alone, that is the important thing in any work of art, because that is a thing that is not ground to the subjective biases of individuals nor masses, not originality nor sentiment. And in these areas that define what makes a work of art work greatly, Alex Proyas’s film Dark City transcends to that rarest circle, greatness, even as, within the limits of its genre it stands alone… nonpareil.

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  • Kevin

    Jesus H Christ; I thought it was good that someone reviewed the director’s cut of Dark City, but SEVEN FUCKING PAGES?? Think anyone reads all that besides you? Fuck no; learn how to write for an audience brainiac.

  • Max De Bowen

    One of, if not my favorite film. A cinematic masterpiece, no doubt. I saw the film late one night on TV, and since then watch it every year or two. I have a copy of the DVD but have to actually watch the commentaries sometime. Thanks for your review Dan. I actually see myself agreeing with most of your points – however I don’t think 2001 was anything all that amazing, and in my experience of reading much of Roger Ebert, I did think he usually had great reviews. I’m glad you took the time to make this review; keep it up!