There seem to be two reactions to Dark City. You either love it or you are unimpressed. Count me as a “love it.”
As good as The Crow and Spawn are, Dark City is better. Where the former two have a specific comic-book following, the latter is an original work with the potential for broader appeal. It has a similar look to the others, but Dark City is much more thoughtful and much less violent.
Not clever or complex, the story is still fascinating, like a selection from The Twilight Zone. A man (Rufus Sewell) is awakened in his bathtub by a man with a syringe. Surprised, the attacker runs off. The dazed man gets out of the tub and finds a woman’s body in the room. A mysterious caller warns him to leave the apartment immediately, so he packs some clothes and leaves, never sure why he’s leaving or what he’s fleeing.
Ghoulish figures in long coats recognize the man and chase him through the dark city, hounding him like figures in a nightmare. An odd blast of willpower allows the man to dream himself free from his pursuers long enough to check his I.D. The amnesiac learns that he is not dreaming and that his name is John Murdoch. Now if only he could remember the rest of his life....
Dark City is good on many levels. First, the look of the movie is excellent. Give credit to production designers George Liddle and Patrick Tatopolous for creating a coherent look from diverse elements. There are visual elements from the American 1920s-60s, mixed with Dickens-era urban industrial elements. It is all pulled together in a sad, dark look reminiscent of the diner in Edward Hopper’s painting, Nighthawks.
Proyas’ use of models gives an appropriately eerie unreality to the film’s world (for not only does the audience see the city a model, but so do the ghouls). The look is like a cross between Tim Burton’s Batman and the bleak animation of the Brothers Quay.
Second, the editing of the film is good. The pacing is on track, and the plot is revealed, the “amnesia” explained, in satisfying increments. Also, the stylized editing within each scene gives the movie a tense, caffeinated look.
Third, the special effects are well used. They look good, but more importantly, the right effects are used for the right job. One example stands out in my mind: the coated figures who haunt the city can attack telekinetically. A simple ripple effect is used. A more showy effect could have been chosen, but then it would have just been gratuitous. Restraint was shown where necessary, letting the more critical effects look more impressive.
Finally, like Gattaca, Dark City spends a just a little effort striving for mythical significance. Unlike Gattaca, the story is just open-ended and non-literal enough to be successful. John Murdoch’s recovery from amnesia is tied to the passing of the night, and the hopeful coming of the dawn. His struggle with amnesia is both figuratively and literally the struggle of all mankind (at least in his world). When we finally see the big picture of the movie’s world, it is as mysterious as the Iroquois image of the world being carried on the back of a giant turtle.
A few minor flaws keep me from giving this movie the same perfect score Roger Ebert gave, but I do strongly recommend it, for its look, its pace, its story, and its timelessness.