In 1998, I was amongst those fortunate few who got to see DARK CITY presented in a theater. As DARK CITY was projected on the screen, I was awestruck by what had to be one of the most inspired science fiction films ever made, and quite possibly one of the best films of that year. Commercially, DARK CITY did not fair well at the box office… However, the film cannot be faulted for its poor showing; one has to blame bad marketing, along with the teenage to young adult audiences that has become the bread and butter of the film industry. DARK CITY is a beautiful and brilliant piece of cinema that required too much of its television numbed audience- it expected them to think and follow the story without every single detail being spoon fed to them.
DARK CITY is the brainchild of director Alex Proyas, whose previous film, THE CROW, was a highly stylized piece of filmmaking. The visual content of both THE CROW and DARK CITY are truly amazing. However, I will admit the scope of DARK CITY eclipses anything Proyas achieved in THE CROW. In fact, Proyas’ work on DARK CITY goes way beyond the visual achievements of many more seasoned filmmakers. If the Academy Awards hadn’t become a popularity contest that honored those films that made the most money, DARK CITY would certainly taken home a number of awards.
The brilliance of DARK CITY comes from the way that the film has melded elements of film noir to that of a science fiction movie. The story has puzzle-like quality that has to be solved as one sees the film for the first time; therefore, I won’t describe the plot in too much detail. DARK CITY stars Rufus Sewell as John Murdoch, a man who emerges from his hotel bathtub like a newborn, nude and without a single memory preceding that moment. His hotel room telephone rings and he receives a warning to leave his room immediately- someone is coming for him. Before he can exit his hotel room, Murdoch spies the body of a young woman on the floor lying next to the bed. She has obviously been murdered. Murdoch can’t remember anything, including the murder, but knows that he will be blamed for the crime. Once outside the hotel, Murdoch finds himself pursued by The Strangers, who control the city from below. DARK CITY doesn’t give any immediate answers, so the audience must follow along with John Murdoch as he tries to discover who he really is, while solving the mysteries of a city where the night never ends.
DARK CITY also stars Kiefer Sutherland as Dr. Schreber. Dr. Schreber is a scientist who has been collaborating with The Strangers. As Dr. Schreber, Sutherland gives a deeply affecting performance, unlike anything else he has done in his career. Jennifer Connelly portrays Emma, Murdoch’s wife, who has difficulty believing that her husband has become the lead suspect in a murder investigation. Connelly is a wonderful actress and timeless beauty who is a perfect fit to the film’s noir setting. William Hurt gives an effective performance as police Inspector Bumstead. Hurt uses his patented brand of blandness as an asset in essaying the role of the fastidious, regimented detective who becomes part of the film’s ultimate mystery. Richard O'Brien (of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW fame) plays Mr. Hand, one of The Strangers who takes a personal interest in discovering what separates John Murdoch from the other inhabitants of DARK CITY. The cast of DARK CITY also features Ian Richardson, Bruce Spence, Colin Friels, John Bluthal, Mitchell Butel and Melissa George.
As I mentioned earlier, DARK CITY was not a success at the box office at the time of its initial release. It was only on home video, and on DVD in particular, that DARK CITY found its audience and became cult favorite. Due to its ever-rising popularity and the fact that it has reached its tenth anniversary, New Line has allowed Alex Proyas to revisit DARK CITY and produce a much sought after Director’s Cut. The differences between the theatrical version of DARK CITY and the Director’s Cut are both subtle and profound. The biggest change is the fact that the Director’s Cut drops the opening narration, which leaves the audience in the same disoriented state as John Murdoch, when he emerges from the bathtub. Some of the other changes to the film involve a couple of new subplots, as well as Jennifer Connelly own singing vocals being utilized during the nightclub sequences. The supplemental section of the disc itself offers a viewing mode that documents all the changes to the Director’s Cut.
New Line Home Entertainment has made both the original theatrical version and the Director’s Cut DARK CITY available on Blu-ray Disc in 2.35:1 aspect ratio presentations that have been encoded onto the disc with the VC-1 codec. The 1080p presentations are of very similar quality and serve as a really nice upgrade from the decade old, standard definition DVD. Image sharpness and detail are quite good, but not demonstrative of the absolute best that Blu-ray has to offer. Occasionally, the picture takes on a slightly over-processed look that homogenizes fine details in skin and textures on objects, but for the most part, DARK CITY renders with clarity, dimensionality and detail. Colors are much improved over the DVD release, appearing more vibrant and are rendered with greater stability. Blacks are pure, whites are always stable and contrast is smooth. The elements from which DARK CITY has been mastered are free from defects. Grain seems exceedingly minimal for such a dark film, as though it may have been processed out of the image.
DARK CITY is presented on Blu-ray Disc with a 7.1 channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Like the visual portion, the Blu-ray provides a good upgrade over the original DVD release. DARK CITY can be quite talky, so the sound isn’t as overwrought as a new action movie mix. There is a good deal of directionality in the forward soundstage, which tends to dominate the sound design. The rear channels do provide a great deal of ambient sound and musical fill, plus some active effects. Trevor Jones's musical score certainly benefits from the upgraded fidelity of DTS-HD format, plus the bottom end of the track is deep and occasionally ground shaking. Dialogue is always crisp and easy to understand. No other language tracks have been included on the disc, but English and Spanish subtitles are provided.
Full motion video, animation and sound serve to enhance the disc’s interactive menus. Through the menus, one has access to standard scene selection and set up features, as well as a nice complement of supplements. Some of the supplements have been ported from the original DVD, while others are newly produced for this release. The original theatrical version features two running Audio Commentaries, the first is with director Alex Proyas, writers Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, and production designer Patrick Tatopoulos, while the second features film critic Roger Ebert. The Director’s Cut comes with three running Audio Commentaries, the first is with is with director Alex Proyas, the second has writers Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer, while the third brings back Roger Ebert.
As I mentioned earlier, the Director's Cut Fact Track offers a pop-up text enhancement, documenting the changes introduced in this new cut of the film. Featurettes include Memories Of Shell Beach (forty three minutes) and Architecture Of Dreams (thirty three minutes), both of which are interview based programs with key members of cast & crew talking about the film, its production and impact. A Production Gallery, two Text Essays: comparison to Fritz Lang’s classic silent science fiction film METROPOLIS and Neil Gaiman's review of the film, plus a Theatrical Trailer close out the supplements.
For my money, DARK CITY remains one of the most inspired and thought provoking science fiction films ever made. New Line’s Blu-ray release, is certainly a very nice upgrade over the DVD release, but I would have preferred a little less digital processing and a more organic, film like look to the presentation. Still, DARK CITY comes highly recommended.
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