Dark City is the type of film that you can sit back and watch and just enjoy the visuals and style. The plot begins similar to many other movies, but quickly becomes something more. It’s an absolutely fascinating film for the majority of its running time, although it also feels a bit empty, and very rushed toward the end. It also has a bit of a logic gap, where many things happen simply because they’ll look cool, not because they make sense.
We open confused, just like our main character, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell). He wakes up in a bed that he doesn’t recognize, in an apartment that he’s never before been inside. He gets a phone call from a doctor (Kiefer Sutherland), who informs him that he should leave, as people are coming for him and they’re going to cause trouble. He leaves, and begins a search to find out exactly who he is, and what’s going on in the city. Something weird is going on, especially once he sees that, at midnight, everyone goes to sleep and the buildings begin to shift and change.
Now, depending on what version of the film you watch — there are two: the theatrical and the director’s cut — you’ll already have a vague idea of what’s going on. There’s some narration given by Sutherland’s character right at the beginning of the theatrical cut that gives you a very big clue regarding what’s happening in the city. Like Blade Runner before it, this narration was put in at the studio’s request, and is absent in the director’s cut. Not having this narration allows for a greater mystery, and makes the inevitable reveal much more powerful.
Take that as a greater recommendation for the director’s cut, although the theatrical version is very good, too. The film veers into sci-fi territory later on, which is a lot of fun, and once the reveal happens and we start to learn exactly what’s going on, you’re going to get very excited — especially if you’ve been trying to figure it out all along. Why does John have strange powers (that the film calls “tuning”)? Why doesn’t he remember his wife (Jennifer Connelly)? What exactly is going on?
You think about all of these things while Dark City plays. Eventually, we find out. Unfortunately, the multiple reveals feel a bit rushed and once they happen, the film is soon going to end. There isn’t a lot to do after we find out what has been going on, so the film decides to fade to black soon afterward. I would have liked for there to be more, but then, you can say that about most enjoyable movies. Perhaps it’s good that Dark City ends when it does; too much of a good thing is still too much.
I think I felt this way because this is a movie that drags a bit in the middle, and doesn’t do a very good job of developing its characters — despite making us spend a lot of time with them not doing a whole lot. The second act drags, is what I’m saying, even though it had no reason to. There is so much richness in the film, so much to take advantage of, that I don’t even know how you manage to become boring. A whole city is created here, and because of how it functions, there should always be something to look for.
Granted, the visuals do carry the story for a lot of the time. The city is suitably dark, and it’s also ever changing. This allows for some gorgeous scenes in which the buildings move, shift, and change size and shape. The neo-noir style that the film is shot in helps, as does the low-key lighting. You could watch Dark City in black and white and it might look even better, and would remind you of a movie made in the ’40s.
Director Alex Proyas takes a style-over-substance approach here. Every time he has to make a choice between the visuals or the plot, he goes with the former. The plot still factors in, but it’s in a secondary purpose. What we’re really here for is the rich environment that he creates, deeply layered and always full of something to watch. That leaves the characters as archetypes, exploring this place but never growing themselves. It works here, I suppose, although some of them are insufferable and annoying because of how generic they are.
This is also a movie that sometimes leaves more questions than answers. While I felt as if I understood it quite well, I still had some things left unanswered after it concluded. If that frustrates you, then you might have to get the DVD and listen to the several audio commentaries included. More than likely, they’ll help you out. I say this instead of trying to dissuade you from seeing it, because I definitely think that Dark City is worth the time investment. You’ll get a lot out of it if you give it the chance.
Dark City is a fascinating movie. It’s not without its flaws — a shorter or more involving second act would have improved it a great deal — but the visuals always give you something to look at and look for. It is most definitely worth giving a watch, and it will keep you thinking for the majority of the time it plays. It’s a haunting film, one that will stay with you for quite a while after it finishes, and I absolutely recommend giving it a watch. You’ll be glad you did.