Time Machine Review: The memories and strangers of Dark City

In today’s Time Machine Review we’re traveling back to 1998 for Dark City.

In this film, written, directed, and produced by Alex Proyas, John Murdoch wakes up naked in a bathtub in a strange city.

There is blood on his forehead, and a murdered hooker on the floor of the room, but he doesn’t remember anything.

He’s launched into an adventure of discovery, as he follows the clues in an attempt to discover who he is, and to see if he’s the man who has been murdering prostitutes over the last few weeks.

The plot deepens when he discovers that there is more to the city than he thought. Once every twelve hours, the entire city falls asleep, and the buildings rearrange, but no matter how long he stays awake, the sun never rises.

When he discovers that the city is an alien experiment, and the population are the subjects, a mysterious psychologist must help him overcome The Strangers, and use their machines against them.

The film is an interpretation of the allegory of the cave in which the machinery of the city is the light of the fire, and the sun must be fought for by a great mental hero, who finds a greater truth, not just metaphorically, but also literally, and he is set up as both a liberator of the people and their new jailor.

Rufus Sewell plays a perfect distraughtly frustrated protagonist. His eyes blaze, and his voice wavers and cracks as the situation begins to take its toll on him, but as his confidence rises, and the final confrontation begins to take form, he plays well also the confident hero, doing what he must to save the city and the girl.

The role is a departure for Sewell who had mostly taken dramatic romances in the past, and it’s a shame that he didn’t see many other speculative scripts afterward either. His stint in 11th Hour was good, but not good enough to measure up to Patrick Steward – though, really, who could be?

Jennifer Connelly plays John’s loving but confused wife, a jazz bar singer with a rebellious streak.

The role is not much of a stretch for her, and the character she plays here is basically the same as every character she’d played before. She has a perfect face for pure bemusement, and this part called for quite a bit of that.

One of the most interesting actors to see in this one looking back is Kiefer Sutherland as the psychologist, Dr. Schreiber. He mostly known for his dramatic roles, and lately, especially for his action drama (which he produced, wrote, and stared in) 24. This film shows a breadth of acting that most modern fans likely don’t realize he has, after seeing so much of Jack Bauer.

In contrast, William Hurt as Detective Bumstead, is the same plain-faced character he is in every film. Much more homogenized even than Connelly. And, while Connelly has broken out and branched into new and different roles since Dark City, Hurt has not.

The effects in the film have aged well, and the pacing and flow of the plot still seems to work after 13 years. The film is dark, not just in scope, but also in many of the visuals, even making some scenes difficult to watch if not in a properly darkened room, but the darkness is fitting, and makes the bright and shiny pay-off at the end feel that much more satisfying, as one literally emerges from the darkness.

In 2008, New Line released the Dark City Directors Cut, which mostly included about fifteen minutes of establishing shots, and trailing visuals which were cur from the original film for time.

For example, the scene in which Connelly’s character is introduced in the Jazz bar gets shortened in the original cut, but in the newer version, she is let to sing – and rock her shapely hips – for a minute, at least.  

The only thing removed is the opening Narration, which was added originally as an afterthought to help audiences get what was going on, but Proyas later felt that it revealed too much, and prefers the version of the film which jumps right into the opening scene. This new version of the film does improve upon the original, but not so much that it’s essential. 

Weather it was influential, or just came first, Dark City headed up a brief trend for action oriented, high budgeted movies which asked questions about the realness of their worlds, including Thirteenth Floor and The Matrix, which both came out the following year – and were both also excellent films.

The now classic is a new staple of speculative fiction story-telling in film. It’s an excellent examples of how to do just about everything right in sci-fi filmmaking, combining some of the best stylistic and concrete elements of the history of film.