Into the never-ending night of Alex Proyas’ Dark City

I recall Dark City being one of my favorite films of 1998, and I would have rated it quite highly had I been keeping score at the time. Dark City is a bold science fiction film noir most obviously indebted to Blade Runner, but also to Dork Report favorites Brazil (especially the sequences of buildings sprouting up out of the ground), Metropolis, M, and City of Lost Children. In each of these films, a protagonist survives in a hostile, often nameless dystopian city, often with the suspicion that his depressing existence is somehow not real. Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs, and David S. Goyer’s screenplay explores the same flavor of paranoid schizophrenia that also figures in the literature of Franz Kafka and Philip K. Dick.

Dark City was overshadowed at the box office by Titanic — as was everything else released at the time, to be honest — but like its later oddball distant cousin Donnie Darko, its extended lifecycle included becoming a cult hit on DVD. In the meantime, director Alex Proyas further raised his bankability with later commercial success I, Robot. So for Dark City’s tenth anniversary, New Line Cinema financed Proyas’ completion of a Director’s Cut for a special edition DVD. Watching it for the first time since 1998, it all nevertheless seemed familiar to this blogger, who found it difficult to spot anything new from memory.

Proyas describes his Director’s Cut as “more complete,” and blames the audience testing process for New Line Cinema pressuring him to add an explanatory voiceover. As he put it, the process undermined his confidence as a filmmaker and thus compromised the film. As was the case with the 2007 reissue of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Proyas has now removed the opening narration, spit-polished the special effects, and extended some scenes.

Dark City
The worst loo in The City

DVD bonus features are dryly referred to by movie studio home entertainment executives as “value-added content.” Repurposed electronic press kits typically feature filmmakers congratulating themselves on how wonderful a film they’ve made and how brilliant all their colleagues were. In contrast, the Dark City DVD squeezes in an interesting and fairly candid feature-length documentary on the making of the film and its impact upon numerous philosophers and film critics. No less a marquee booster than St. Roger Ebert praises the film and contributes and entire commentary track. Ebert has long championed the film, even including it among his series of Great Movies. Among other excellent insights, he points out it predated the similarly-themed The Matrix by over a year.

Dark City
Happy Birthday, Mr. Murdoch

The filmmakers relate their amusing struggles with the MPAA. Shown a relatively inoffensive cut of the film, they nevertheless wanted to give it an “R” rating, the best rationale they could give being its overall weirdness. So, faced with receiving an R no matter what, the filmmakers actually decided to add more nudity and violence. But there is still no profanity in this antiseptic universe. Dark City is a film noir of the sort where even hookers say things like “Aw, shoot.”

Of the cast, only Rufus Sewell participates in the documentary. He’s nothing like I would have expected; actually kind of goofy and animated, in direct contrast to his moody seriousness in the role. Kiefer Sutherland overeggs his performance with a limp, facial deformity, and speech defect. His character is a remorseful collaborator that turns on his masters, interesting enough without all the actorly accouterments. A striking shot of Jennifer Connelly standing on the end of a pier matches my memory of a similar shot in Requiem for a Dream.

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