These are our four categories for this list:
These guys have had it too easy. Far too easy. Don’t believe the insane hype.
Good flicks that have gotten too damn big for their britches.
Asshole, you love this film for all the wrong reasons.
WHAT THE FUCK
Something went horribly wrong here and it’s carried over the the fans, who are blinded by shizer.
Why Dark City is What The Fuck?
Your guide: Russ Fischer
Its Legacy: Established Jennifer Connelly’s relationship with piers; made pasty white men in hats unfashionable once again; rekindled genre fans’ love for Connelly; showed the Wachowskis what not to do; they listened…for a minute; projected the charms of Melissa George; made a poor case for exposition delivered in four-syllable gasps.
Why It’s Here: What was in the water in the late ’90s? Prefigured by movies like City of Lost Children, the decade’s last few years saw a handful of relatively high-profile releases that took movie science fiction to new places, or tried to: eXistenZ, The Matrix, Uzumaki and many more. Though I’d take eXistenZ over them all, the obvious culmination point is The Matrix, at least in pop culture. And then there’s Dark City, which prefigured several other films in the wave and drew the attention of Roger Ebert, who championed the film in several contexts. And with volume.
Whatever was in the water is concentrated heavily in Dark City. This amalgam of Fritz Lang and film noir, of late 1940s style and late 1990s effects, has an iconography that is seductive but scattershot and is as good a definition of our What the Fuck? tag as I can come up with. For every shot or setting that holds allure and mystique, there’s a block of dialogue that tries too hard and an alien race (of ‘ultimate technology’) that can traverse space and fabricate literal reality, but spends time bent over tables making personal artifacts like sweatshop workers. The movie is a blender of ideas with nothing to emulsify the mix. The somnambulent leads are without personality, the villains without menace. How can a shuffling, enslaved memory doctor bind it all together? He can’t.
My suspicions begin with the first frames, as Kiefer Sutherland haltingly speaks; his broken intonation melds Sutherland’s weird but effective Sam Stanley from Fire Walk With Me and Michael McKean’s sniveling scenes in Clue. This performance, which I can’t even qualify as ‘shaky’, points to the rest of the film, which is a mishmash of elements that purports to be science fiction and wants to meld a dystopian atmosphere with an inquest into the nature of conscience and humanity, but you’ll get more knowledge out of a cheap carnival fortune teller. Does it absolutely have to come together? Can the movie work even when it doesn’t work the way it wants to? Previously listed Donnie Darko says yes, but this flick has none of the extra stuff that salvages Donnie.
Where most of the films we’ve listed so far are ones we genuinely like, even love, Dark City is an experience I can appreciate only on the most basic, superficial level. I get a kick out of the true form of the Strangers — they appear to be cousins to Krull‘s Slayers — and the notion of a recombinant city is dreamlike and seductive.
This is one of the few films I would endorse as a video game with no reservations. It has beauty and style, and where many elements (the Strangers and their lair, the space view of the city, John Murdoch’s ability to tune) make no sense within the context of the film, even on the intuitive level that helps mesh Donnie Darko into some sort of whole, they would be perfectly at home in the subjective world of gaming.
EDIT: I’m adding this after the fact, because ‘Dre’s mention of Brazil reminded me that I’d meant to bring it up. One of the many, many things that makes Brazil work that is sorely lacking here is a sense of humor. (You might even substitute Blade Runner as an example, though it’s hardly a laugh riot.) Dark City is resolute in it’s shadowy grime, which contributes to the deadly serious and single-minded feeling of the film, which makes the thud resound more heavily when it fails. If I ever got the feeling that Alex Proyas wasn’t so bent on really making a significant point, even that he could be cracking a smile, I might be able to find some spirit that, as is, I can’t detect at all.
A Moment of Piss: As we see our first convocation of The Strangers, poetic dialogue is delivered. “No more Mr. Quick. Mr Quick dead.” “Poor, poor Mr. Quick.”
These Ain’t Chopped Liver Alternatives: eXistenZ, The Matrix, Requiem For A Dream, Memento, Planescape: Torment.
Andre Dellamorte Agrees: When I saw Dark City, my reaction was: “Really, another distopian future?” Perhaps it was the Clintonian context, but the reason why Brazil is brilliant (even though I’m not fond of it) while most films like this fail is because the distopia is a straw dog, and when the hero rights the situation there’s not much weight to it. Where both Orwell and Huxley were trying to create a possilbe future, creating a non-believable one and then triumphing over it is silly… even if the set design or prop masters do an incredible job (other films not saved by this: Dune, The Matrix Sequels, Minority Report). The only weight a film like this can have is if the future is unstoppable, but the climax – which undoes he damage of the make-believe world – shows that we’ve just invested our time in a story that has nothing to say. Perhaps the director’s cut will give weight to the proceedings, but I just saw a lot of appropriated images, and nothing of any discernable merit. I like noir, and I like science-fiction, but I know Blade Runner, and Dark City, sir, is no Blade Runner.
Justin Waddell Disagrees: Finally, a movie that attempts to show us just how far aliens would branch out from their usual anal probing methods if given a bigger budget. Dark City is a movie that has grown on me over the years. When I first saw it, I thought Proyas was just taking bits from his first feature, The Crow, and mixing in sci-fi tropes. I also didn’t know what to make of Rufus Sewell’s performance, which seemed awkward, unsure. Still, I bought the DVD because I appreciated the craft of the thing, and I wanted to hear the infamous Ebert commentary (which I still haven’t listened to.) I’ve since come to really enjoy Sewell’s acting here (and his Joaquin Phoenix-sounding American accent), as well as the rest of the film. I love the world Proyas creates. And he establishes it with such confidence. I’m fascinated by amnesia-noir, that genre within a genre. And, like Memento, this is just an excellent recent example of it. Russ mentioned some great reference points above (The City of Lost Children, Fritz Lang), but I also see a lot of Gilliam’s Brazil in the ever-changing, floating space city (!). Of course, if Gilliam had been behind the wheel, the movie wouldn’t have been so humorless. But who has time for laughs when you have noir, Cenobite-alikes, a raspy, limping, lazy-eyed Kiefer, syringes, goldfish, and an accordion-hugging William Hurt drizzled across this widescreen concoction? The mind fight at the end goes a little long, but this is some really solid sci-fi. I simply can’t brand it our What the Fuck label. Go watch The Thirteenth Floor to see this same idea executed not nearly as cleverly. And to see the great Craig Bierko in a rare starring role.