PUBLISHED IN THE LONG ISLAND VOICE FEBRUARY 26 - MARCH 4, 1998
By Nick Krewen
Salutations as well to Kafka, Clive Barker, Riff Raff and everyone else that Australian director Alex Proyas incorporates as a symbolic touchstone in his new absurdist sci-fi drama Dark City , his first feature since 1994's The Crow.
Like The Crow , much of the tone of Dark City is set by environment. The urban cityscape is a jumble of dark skyscrapers and illuminated windows; the streets a shadowy realm where lamplight is intermittent and evil seemingly lurks around every corner. Rooms are dimly lit and the only genuinely colorful settings are items such as billboards and souvenirs promoting Shell Beach, the figurative escape that plays an increasingly prominent role as the story develops.
And what a tale Dark City spins. Co-written by Proyas, Lem Dobbs (Kafka ) and David Goyer (The Crow: City Of Angels ), we're treated to a pre-credits narrative from the mysterious Dr. Schreiber who informs us that his planet has been invaded by a race of aliens called "Strangers," masters of the fine art of "tuning."
When the camera shortly introduces us to Schreiber (Kiefer Sutherland), he is a slightly hunched man with a persistent limp who speaks in Peter Lorre tones, wears Granny glasses and has his hair parted in the middle. Mad scientist, anyone?
As he glances at his watch, midnight strikes and all inhabitants inexplicably and instantly turn narcoleptic. After the city grinds to a slumbering halt, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell, Dangerous Beauty ) suddenly awakens with a start and finds himself in a bathtub, a trickle of blood on his forehead. He has no memory of who he is, how he got there, nor any clue about the naked, butchered woman in the other room.
A cryptic phone call from Schreiber warns Murdoch to get out of the room. "Don't let them find you," cautions Schreiber, and thus the chase begins.
Shortly thereafter, Murdoch is cornered by a quartet of Stranger henchmen led by Mr. Hand (The Rocky Horror Picture Show's Richard O' Brien), a society of bald, sunken-eyed subterranean Nosferatus that dress like Hellraiser's Pinhead and fly like Mary Poppins. Murdoch saves himself by furrowing his brow and emitting a ripple of telepathic artillery called "tuning" that kills one of his foes, in turn sending a warning signal to the Strangers' Grand Poobah, Mr. Book (Ian Richardson).
The Strangers aren't his only stalkers. He's also suspected in a series of serial killings by Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt), a no-nonsense detective who hugs an accordion his mother gave him when he's off-duty. Thrown into the mix is Emma (Jennifer Connelly), the comely nightclub singer who may or may not be Murdoch's wife. And is Dr. Schreiber friend or foe?
Now truly paranoid, Murdoch sets out to unravel the mystery behind his problematic existence, figuring that all the answers lie at Shell Beach. But getting there is another issue.
Suspensefully entertaining, director Proyas does a fine job of patiently peeling the enigma like the layers of an onion, as the motives of The Strangers and a subplot involving memory manipulation are slowly unravelled. Darius Wolski's cinematography is purposefully dark and brooding, while the design team of Patrick Tatopolous and George Liddle built a staggering 50 sets to create the Dark City's visually stunning chameleon landscape. None of the actors save for the campy Sutherland delivers a memorable performance, but considering the plot of the film perhaps that's the point.
But where the movie ultimately fails us is in the final 15 minutes, which resorts to a hokey battle between good and evil and a typical Hollywood ending. If that isn't enough of an insult, Murdoch literally spells out the movie's premise in a single-line summary.
After sitting through two hours of belief suspension, Dark City patrons deserve better.
A New Line Films Release. Directed by Alex Proyas. Opens February 27.
FILMS BY ALEX PROYAS
1993 -- The Crow
THANKS: Beth Rimmels
© 1998, 1999 Nick Krewen
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