There's a man unconscious in a bathtub. A light fixture swings back and forth over the small room revealing the green floor tiles and purple bath water. The man wakes up; alarmed, naked, and confused he wanders into the next room and knocks over a fish tank. After placing the fish in the tub he gets dressed and finds a mutilated woman lying dead on the floor. The phone rings and a voice tells him that people are coming for him and he has to run.
This is the opening sequence to “Dark City”, directed by Alex Proyas (“The Crow”). The story follows the memory stricken John Murdock (Rufus Sewell) as he runs from the police who suspect him to be a murderer as well as strange bald men who are trying to kill him. While on the run, he begins to develop powerful mental abilities and bumps into a mysterious doctor (Kiefer Sutherland) who may know some much needed answers. Inspector Bumstead (played pretty deadpan by William Hurt) and John’s wife Emma Murdock (the stunningly beautiful Jennifer Connelly) also attempt to find him and in the process begin to notice strange things about the city around them, such as the lack of sunlight and a strange sense of collective amnesia.
The story is full of twists and turns and for the first half hour or so, it's very easy to feel completely lost. Part of what makes this work is that John Murdock has very shattered memories of his life, so the city is as bizarre and new to him as it is to the audience, who must then learn about his world as he does. It all unravels like a gothic jigsaw puzzle. Every question raised and every mystery is solved by the end, resulting in an incredible (albeit a bit over-the-top) climax.
Part of what I like the most is the story, with the central themes relating to what makes a person truly human (much like it’s contemporary, “Blade Runner”), placing a particular focus and emphasis on memories. If a person has no past or history, then who’s to say if they even exist? This is a theme that would be later revisited in the sci-fi/noir anime series, “The Big O”, a particular favorite of mine. The movie in its style also plays with various genres, and with the inspector/murder storyline and Emma being a nightclub singer, much of the film is framed in the vein of a classic film noir; the big twist being the sci-fi elements that are incorporated making the story something else entirely by the end.
The acting is also good, Rufus Sewell in particular; he's convincing as a confused and tortured hero, making it easy to follow along with his discoveries. Kiefer Sutherland is surprisingly different in his role as the smart, but sickly Dr. Schreber. The rest of the cast is good as well, though this is yet another role in which William Hurt seems to be sleepwalking (though it kind of fits in this case).
The visuals in “Dark City” are as engrossing as the originality of it. The city is, without being redundant, very dark. There are dark greens and yellows (reminiscent of later sci-fi films like “The Matrix”) while virtually everything is cast in shadow. It's set in a never-ending night and the shadows and color scheme provide a mysterious and sinister tone. The visual effects are also impressive for the time, and the sequences in which the city is rearranged and rebuilt are particularly memorable, as is the underground mechanized base of the bald men.
The sets are unique and massive, providing every sequence with plenty of background action and detail, making the city itself a living, breathing character reminiscent of the one from “The City of Lost Children”. Every street is littered with meticulous detail and every room or hallway has a depth to it, making it seem like there's a world behind the characters onscreen.
As a unique and original combination between the sci-fi and film noir genre, this is a memorable film that's highly deserving of a recommendation. Definitely give it a watch.