Dark City is a haunting, surreal, and stunning cinematic achievement from Alex Proyas: an amalgam of German expressionism, science fiction and film noir. John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakens at midnight in a bathtub, paranoid and amnesiac, with a primitive instrument on the floor, a bloody knife on the table, and a woman’s corpse behind the bed. He receives a telephone call from Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), who warns him to leave immediately, as pallid, gaunt Strangers close in on him. Clues to his identity eventually lead him to his estranged wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly), who explains the reason behind their fractured relationship. Earlier, she attempts to file a missing persons report on her husband and is redirected to Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt) who suspects Murdoch of being a serial killer. Note the similar “scripted” explanation she provides to Bumstead and Murdoch, as if methodically reciting a logical consequence to Murdoch’s inexplicable behavior. Recalling fragmented memories of his childhood home, he attempts to return to the elusive Shell Beach, in search of his past, and uncovers the nature of the Strangers’ experiments.
Proyas’ synthesis of film genres and directorial styles results in a film that is remarkably adept and original, despite its derivation from established, often insipidly imitated archetypes. The infusion of retro elements into a futuristic setting is characteristic of such cinematic visionaries as Fritz Lang, Stanley Kubrick, Jean-Luc Godard and Ridley Scott. The gaunt, lanky Strangers are seeming reincarnations of Orlok in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu or Cesare in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, having literally risen from the dead. The mythical Shell Beach is a quintessential Hitchcockian McGuffin, a tangential distraction whose pursuit leads to the ultimate truth. Inevitably, it is the humanity of the film that elevates it from the ranks of the hollow, big budget, frenetic sci-fi potboilers that have often plagued the genre. Dark City is, after all, a universal film about the search for identity, connection, and the soul – exquisitely veiled in the context of a mesmerizing and painstakingly realized netherworld – a truly ambitious experiment.
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