A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 231 – Dark City

Dark City – October 17th, 2010

I remember when I first saw this movie, sitting in Andy’s first apartment in Pennsylvania. I remember thinking it was pretty damn cool, but it was late when I’d watched it and I’d missed a few bits and so it felt a little like a puzzle missing a piece or two. It added to its mystery and ambiance at the time. After all, it is a mystery, and it’s a mystery that involves stories being built and people’s whole personalities and lives being pieced together from scratch. It’s about a man who’s missing parts of himself. A city that’s missing more than it knows. So it’s understandable to me that I might leave it, at least at first, feeling like there was something that I overlooked.

As it turns out, I think I must just not have been paying close enough attention. The movie is really rather well put together, but it does something I really love: It makes use of the medium of film to communicate. You can’t follow the plot just by listening to the dialogue. You need to look at the images and the people to know what’s going on. I’d be curious to hear how the movie would be done in DVS, since there’s so much that’s communicated visually. And I’m not just talking about atmosphere, though the atmosphere is very important to the movie and is also very reliant on visuals. I’m talking about the memories. The plot revolves around constructed memories, introduced to people in a flood all at once. Watching those memories flash by tells someone seeing them a whole lot, but the purpose is to show little bits of information quickly, faster than they’d be communicated by someone speaking. Eliding them into “visions of a childhood spent at the beach” wouldn’t tell someone nearly enough. So I’m curious. It’s a movie that takes the audio and the video and uses both to great effect.

Something else I love about this movie is that it’s a science fiction mystery. It’s scifi noir, and I do love the melding of genres. When it starts it seems as if it’s simply a noirish murder mystery, with a man waking up in a hotel bath tub, no memory of who he is or how he got there or why there’s a dead woman in the room, spirals cut into her skin. Why is he there? Who killed the woman? What’s going on and who is he? But as soon as you meet the Strangers, it’s apparent that this is not just a mystery. Something inhuman is at work here. And soon enough we know some of what it is, but it takes the rest of the movie for it all to come out. Suffice it to say that the city is an experiment, and the people in it unwitting subjects. The Strangers are a dying race of aliens, studying the human soul in hopes of curing what ails them. And so they take people, remove their memories, replace them with others, build them new lives and make them new people and see what happens. But it’s unnatural. And so sometimes the people wake and it hasn’t worked and their minds break. Humans weren’t meant to live like this. John Murdoch has rejected the life he was being given and the Strangers want to know how. He can use the powers they use to reshape the city. They want to find him before he ruins everything.

It doesn’t sound that complicated there, I know. But the way the movie tells it all is through snippets and visions and bits and pieces of memory. John doesn’t have the memories he should have, but he has the trappings of the life he was supposed to have. He hunts down this man he was supposed to be and slowly figures out what’s going on. He has help, of course, but three of the people helping him are working with limited knowledge, since they’re of the city too, and their memories and lives are as constructed as his was supposed to be. There’s the woman who was supposed to be his wife, Emma. There’s Inspector Bumstead, who’s inherited John’s case from another inspector who, as it turns out, also woke up. And has since snapped. Detective Walenski, the other inspector, helps John a bit too. As much as he can before he’s gone. And then there’s Dr. Schreber, a somewhat tragic figure. He’s human, but not really a part of the city. He works for the Strangers, but not willingly, and he is a key to John figuring out what’s happening and finding a way to fix everything. The performances of these characters, as well as the most important strangers, are fantastic. It’s this movie that made me desperately want to see Rufus Sewell as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter movies. He does determined desperation so well. William Hurt and Jennifer Connolly are both excellent, in quiet ways, as Bumstead and Emma, respectively. And then there’s Kiefer Sutherland as Schreber. He’s halting and awkward and hurt, but also triumphant at the end. And of course there’s Richard O’Brien as Mr. Hand, a Stranger who takes a very sinister path, following John through the city. I absolutely adore O’Brien in this.

As the movie progresses, we see the city shift and grow and shrink and change. People disappear from their jobs and reappear in others as if they’d been there the whole time. John searches the city for a way to a beach he thinks he should remember, but the beach is forever unreachable. Like the memories he should have. It can be a little heavy handed, yes, but I don’t really care. After all, the Strangers aren’t the most careful or delicate of creatures. They keep Schreber around because he’s able to deftly meld memory essence into a life, something the Strangers can’t do themselves. So the darkness and heavy handedness is fitting, taken as things the Strangers have constructed. The city itself really gives the movie its fantastic atmosphere. It’s a place where you expect murders to happen. It feels seedy and crumbling and I can’t help but wonder just how much the Strangers could learn from such an unnatural and rotten place. I’ve always thought that any data they got from the human subjects would be twisted by the environment they have the subjects in. But perhaps that was intentional. They’re somewhat twisted creatures themselves anyhow.

Having now seen this movie countless times, I no longer feel lost at the end of it. Yes, there are pieces that aren’t put neatly in place, and the ending is triumphant but not perfect, but that feels right. It doesn’t feel like it’s missing pieces. It feels like there are holes in the puzzle itself. Parts that were never there and so it’s up to us to fill them in. And I rather like that. I like that the movie places the creation of the world squarely in the hands of the inhabitants. That there’s a message that we can create ourselves. That we’re not defined by what other people say we are, but by what we find within. It’s a very stylized movie, and it definitely depends on its visuals to place the audience in this timeless city where it’s always night and things can change in a matter of minutes. But it also has a few fantastic messages that don’t necessarily depend on the visuals. But put it all together and you get something special, and I think I will always love it.

October 17, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dark City

October 17, 2010

Dark City

Way back at the start of this movie project when we reviewed Knowing I talked about how I had purchased it based only on the fact that it had the name of Alex Proyas attached to it. For me that name has a special magic, and this movie is the reason why. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this film. At one point after this came out on DVD I watched this movie almost every day. It’s such a wonderfully put together story, such a strange and mysterious world and filled with such strange and broken characters.

I could over-simplify and say that this is a noir sci-fi mystery, which is mostly true. At its core it excels at presenting that dark, moody look of the old noir mysteries of the past, and mixing in a ton of cool special effects with a sci-fi story behind it all. Mix this with an astonishing cast of brilliant actors, a wonderful script, and magical production design. Even with all that there’s something other and beyond that which brings the whole movie together. It’s all those things, but it’s also more than the sum of its parts.

The movie is called Dark City, and the city is very much one of the stars of the film. Before we meet any of the characters we get a long series of establishing shots that go through the grimy, damp, dark and smoggy streets of the bustling metropolis where this whole film takes place. It’s all narrow streets and looming buildings, elevated train rails and traffic on busy thoroughfares. In design the city is vague about its time period, but it has a sort of art deco 1930s feel, which is in keeping with the noir feel. The bustling crowds that inhabit its streets are all caught in their anonymous lives.

It is one of those little lives upon which the movie concentrates. At the start of the film whole city falls asleep at the stroke of midnight – slumped on their stools in the delis of the city or over the wheels of their cars. Everything grinds to a halt, but alone in a hotel bathroom a single man wakes up. He has no memory of who he is, where he is, or how he got there – and there are strange forces at work in his life. As he sets out to figure out his life he finds that he is named John Murdock and that he is the prime suspect in a series of murders. His beautiful wife has been having an affair. There’s a mysterious limping, stuttering doctor who knows something about his past. Most disturbing of all are the mysterious pale Strangers in long black coats who seem to be following him. It’s all a mystery, like I said, but a sci-fi mystery. Which means that in order to solve the mystery – in order to figure out who he is and what’s going on – John has to understand the nature of the world he’s living in.

Another aspect of what makes this movie so astonishing is the cast. How on earth did Proyas get this collection of well known and talented actors for such an offbeat and peculiar project? In the role of John there’s Rufus Sewell, who was unknown to me at the time which works for a sort of sympathetic mystery man character. Then there’s Jennifer Connelly as his wife Emma. She’s perfect as a sort of smouldering noir heroine. Her every heavy-lidded glare speaks volumes and she also has a sort of innocence about her which is perfect for the role she’s playing as Emma is used by the mysterious doctor, the police and the strangers in attempts to get to John. As the driven police detective determined to get to the bottom of the mystery no matter what the price is William Hurt, who has been one of my favorite character actors for years. He has a knack for playing these soft-spoken people with a core of steel upon whom entire worlds can turn. Check him out in Fearless or Kiss of the Spider Woman. So it’s a delight to see him here. He brings a great sense of gravitas to the film and helps the audience to unravel the mystery as his own character gets caught up in it. As the doctor there’s Keefer Sutherland. He jokes on the commentary track that when his agent gave him the script he thought they had gotten the wrong Sutherland and had meant to pitch the role to Donald. I love the way he’s chosen to portray Dr. Schreber. He’s so clearly and literally broken. he has trouble walking, trouble speaking. He seems completely weak and beaten throughout the entire film, but has secret schemes of his own which he plans to enact. And there are the Strangers. All of them are creepy and cool in their leather outfits with their pale bald heads, but chief among them in my regard is of course Richard O’Brien of Rocky Horror fame as Mr. Hand. His performance is so sinister, so creepy and so utterly alien that he brings a great deal of tension and power to the movie all on his own.

Further kudos have to go to the special effects teams and designers who worked on this film. The city itself, and the creepy clockwork bowls beneath it, are brought to life through a number of claustrophobic sets, a whole lot of intricate and beautiful work with scale models, and a liberal sprinkling of computer effects and morphing. Everything blends to form a sort of dream world. It’s a city of no particular time with no particular geography or landmarks. Just endless buildings, girders and streets where the Strangers go about their peculiar experiments.

I love, love, love, love, LOVE this movie. As I’ve said it combines a great script, a great cast and great design to make a very cool experience, but for me it has more impact than that. I think it comes down to the payoff at the end of the film. Deep down I have the unshakable belief that this movie holds a truth about our own world. I know in my heart that here in the world we inhabit outside of the movies and the internet the same can be said of our lives as of John’s. If you truly understand the world you live in then you gain the power to change it for the better.

October 17, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment