Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Dark City (1998)

The urchins are writhing around in the mud,

Like eels playing tag in a barrel

The old Sally Army sound mournful and sweet

As they play an old Chrssmassy carol;

The world is as black as a dark night in hell

What kind of a place can this be?

          –Richard Thompson, “The Sun Never Shines on the Poor”


“They built a city to see what makes us tick.  Last night one of us went off.”

          –Tag-line for Dark City


I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask some of you to leave.  Right now.  You’re not going to rent Dark City. You know that, and I know that.  Walk away.  Check out the classifieds.  Reread Tom’s column.  Feed the dog.  Contemplate something.  Just don’t argue with me.

Still here?  Okay, just let me ask you one question.  It’s kind of personal, but then you’re the one who’s still hanging around.  The nights are getting longer, darker.  There’s more time to sit by the fire and daydream as winter settles in.  Your imagination drifts and you see yourself……where?  In a clean, brightly-lit hospital corridor, smiling through the operating room window at the young child whose life you’ve miraculously saved by recognizing the signs of an imminent cerebral hemorrhage that trained physicians refused to acknowledge until, like Joan of Arc, you managed to convince them that you had knowledge that transcended rational understanding?

Ooooooh, wrong answer.  The correct answer was: amnesiac and naked next to a dead body in a cheap hotel in an artificial city controlled by aliens.  Now do you see why I asked you to leave?

For those of you who answered correctly, welcome to the rest of this review.  You probably already know that amnesia is one of the classic plot lines of film noir.  The victim is usually male, nondescript.  Circumstantial evidence implicates him in a particularly heinous crime.  The police are the least of his worries.  The world is filled with strangers who want him dead.  If he’s lucky, there’s a woman out there who’ll believe in his innocence and help him find the Truth.  If he’s not so lucky, the screenplay will have him double-crossed and dying in an alley filled with blowing newspapers and some really cool chiaroscuro.

With Dark City (1998) Egyptian-born, Australia-raised director Alex Proyas chooses the more upbeat scenario.  But what in less talented hands would be the whole movie, in Proyas’s is just the springboard to the creation of one of the most baroque worlds ever captured on celluloid.  You will not have seen anything quite like Dark City.  This movie has the kind of visual punch that causes people to run out and spend their children’s college money on DVD players, surround sound, and high definition televisions.  I recommend watching it when you’re broke and not prone to temptation.  To be on the safe side, let someone else hold onto your credit cards until the twitching subsides.

I’ve got a lot more to say about the look of Dark City, but first a few more words about the plot. Not satisfied with simply working the film noir scenario described earlier, Alex Proyas grafted on a classic science fiction plot-line.  An alien race has kidnapped some earth folks and planted them in a maze-like, generic city to observe the workings of the human soul.  Their own civilization is, naturally, dying, and they feel that an infusion of some old-fashioned human irrationality will act as a kind of cosmic Viagra.

The aliens, called the Strangers, are delectably sinister and refreshingly free from anything remotely resembling a conscience:  pasty, bald, insectile, leather-clad, homburg-wearing, black-coated creepoids with names like Mr. Hand (Richard O’Brien, Riff-Raff from the Rocky Horror Picture Show), Mr. Book (Ian Richardson) and Mr. Wall (Bruce Spence).  Incarnating a sort of anti-Zen, they move by literally drifting through the city like crematorial smoke.  Think Nosferatu crossed with some paintings by René Magritte.  The Strangers also have a telekinetic power they called “tuning.”  By focusing their collective mental energies they can morph reality into any shape they desire.  The production and design crews of Dark City have succeeded in erasing the cinematic line between conception and execution.  They’ve created a dark ballet with shapeshiftin buildings and rooms instead of dancers.  It used to be that only Loony Tunes animators had this kind of power.  Now, with supercomputers on desktops, reality is plastic.

Collaborating with the Strangers in their experiments is a human scientist, Dr. Daniel Poe Schreber, who has found a way to distill memory into something that can sucked into a syringe and mainlined into the brain.  As Schreber, Kiefer Sutherland is over the top and loving it.  He’s perfected a speech impediment that causes.  Him. to speak. sort of like. thisssss.  Yessssss? He looks like a myopic rat who’s had too many close calls while scrounging through garbage cans. Sutherland’s performance is nicely matched with that of William Hurt as the stoic cop, Inspector Frank Bumstead, who is so world weary that Armageddon would only bother him because of the paperwork involved.  He deadpans lines like, “I just take what they give me, Husselbeck” and “What kind of killer stops to save a dying fish?”  His sole worldly possession is an accordion allegedly given to him by his mother.  Go figure.

The laboratory in which Schreber and the aliens conduct their unwholesome experiments, the film’s tour de force special effects showpiece, is Dark City itself. Picture someplace like New York, after sundown, circa 1940, with architecture somewhere between art deco, gothic and Franz Kafka.   Everything is generic:  the hotel sign says HOTEL, the corner store says FOOD, the diner’s neon says AUTOMAT. No subway leads out of town.  It’s never daylight.  You fall asleep at midnight as a tenement-dwelling, blue-collar worker complaining about layoffs, and wake up as a penthouse capitalist planning the next round of cuts.

Someone described the look of Dark City as Edward Hopper meets Fritz Lang.  I like that. Fritz Lang was the great German expressionist filmmaker whose Metropolis (1926) and M (1931) were visionary works that proved cinema was without limits even before the age of sound, color, and binary code.  Much of Dark City, particularly the scenes with the Strangers and their massed “tuning”, is a tribute to Lang.  He would have approved of both Proyas’ theme of the power of the individual versus the collective, and the special effects Götterdämmerung that literally brings down the houses.

Hopper was a turn-of-the-century American realist painter whose canvases often made buildings seem as lonely as people.  Dark City is a very lonely place.  What else would you expect from aliens looking for a soul?  As they themselves admit, “We fashioned this city on stolen memories—different eras, different pasts—all rolled into one.  Each night we revise it, refine it, in order to learn….We use your dead as vessels.”

Ever since 2001: A Space Odyssey, we’ve had movie aliens who are smarter than we are.  Dark City is a return to the Good Old Days when you couldn’t keep a good human down.  As amnesia victim John Murdoch, who uncovers his true identity at the same time he discovers the special powers he shares with those hunting him, actor Rufus Sewell makes both a convincing everyman and an avenger of Biblical proportions.  “The recesses of darkness he discloses, and brings forth the light.”   Sure, humanity is just as likely to be accidentally composted by an Intergalactic Recycling Expedition from another galaxy, but in the meantime science fiction can still get us earthlings a little respect.


Looking Back & Second Thoughts

For me, Dark City remains a cool mashup of Raymond Chandler, Metropolis, Nosferatu, Edward Hopper, Jack Vettriano, James Avati, Blade Runner, The Matrix, and all those movies & TV shows where characters wake up with blood on their hands and no memory of what’s happened to them or who they are.  Word of Advice: watch the Director’s Cut—there’s a crucial and very effective change to the beginning of the film.  Another Word of Advice:  watch this on the biggest screen you’ve got access to.  Because I wound up downloading the film off iTunes for this update, I watched it on our 78-inch flatscreen.  Way, way too small.  The city transformation scenes and the final climactic confrontation cry out for the full home theatre treatment with surround sound and a ten-foot screen, minimum.

Full disclosure: I still have a bit of a crush on Jennifer Connelly.  I think it started with The Rocketeer, back in 1991.  Her January 2002 appearance on the David Letterman Show was, um, memorable.  The following year, Ms. Connelly picked up an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in A Beautiful Mind.

I don’t have crushes on William Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, Rufus Sewell, Ian Richardson or Richard O’Brien, but their performances are perfectly matched to Dark City’s retro-future-gothic-deco noir.

Director Alex Proyas has made only four feature films in the twenty years since Dark City.  His preference seems to have been to work on short films.  He has directed about 100 music videos.

Roger Ebert called Dark City the best film of 1998, and included it in his The Great Movies III anthology.  You’ll find that review at  Ebert describes how at the Hawaii Film Festival he went through the film a shot at a time over four days with a group of moviegoers.  His conclusion: “I am simply grateful for this shot,” I said in Hawaii more than once.  “it is as well done as it can possibly be.”  Many other great films give you the same feeling—that their makers were carried far beyond the actual requirements of their work into the passion of creating something wonderful.

The Imdb Trivia page for Dark City contains this interesting entry:

This film deals with ‘Last Thursdayism’, a philosophy described in a satiric comment by 20th-century historian Bertrand Russell, referring to the “Omphalos” papers (1857) of Philip Gosse. Last Thursdayism says that the world (with us and our own basic memories included) could have been created recently, even last Thursday, but we cannot demonstrate such a thing because the world would have been created to look like an older world.



Movie Information

Genre: Science Fiction | Film Noir
Director: Alex Proyas
Actors: Rufus Sewell, William Hurt, Jennifer Connelly, Kiefer Sutherland, Ian Richardson, Richard O’Brien, Bruce Spence
Year: 1998
Original Review: November 1999


How Private Citizens Beat the Nazis in Hollywood

This is a review of Stephen J. Ross’s book, Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America.  The reviewer is Crawford Killian, a fine writer whose columns are regularly featured on British Columbia’s excellent online news site, The Tyee.  For anyone not sufficiently disturbed by the new “norms” of Donald Trump’s America, the photo that heads the review—captioned “The Nazi-based Friends of the New Germany hold a party in Los Angeles to mark Adolph Hitler’s birthday in 1935”—is a terrifying glimpse at what some of the old “norms” used to look like.  Here are  extracts from Mr. Killian’s review:

“This remarkable book throws a new light on 1930s U.S. history, not to mention current events, and it even illuminates part of my own family history during that time in Los Angeles.

Ross, a history professor at the University of Southern California, has studied the political culture of Hollywood in earlier books. In this one, he looks at how Hitler deliberately targeted the U.S. movie industry as part of his long-term plan for war — and how one man’s private spy ring helped thwart that plan…..”

“…reports showed the FNG [Friends of the New Germany] was dangerous indeed. It was trying to unify (and Nazify) the dozens of German-American organizations in Southern California. It was recruiting storm troopers and training them both in their big headquarters building, Deutsches Haus, and up in the Hollywood Hills.

The FNG was also forming alliances with the Silver Shirts, the KKK and other anti-Semitic groups — not just in L.A., but up and down the West Coast. (The FNG in 1934 claimed to have 450 members in Vancouver.)

A constant theme of the FNG was the violent uprising that would trigger a national revolt against President Roosevelt and his “Jew Deal” government. The Nazis seriously discussed taking over National Guard armouries, hanging Jews and Communists from lamp poles, and simply shooting up Jewish neighbourhoods….”

“[Ross] also describes the complex cultural history of 1930s Hollywood, when movies had the political clout of Facebook and might be written by rich young Reds or by William Dudley Pelley, the founder of the Silver Shirts.

Those were the days when the local German consul kept the studios from making movies that might be at all critical of Nazi Germany — even though he despised the Nazis. The movie moguls, almost all Jewish, were among the best-paid executives in the country. They had no idea that the foremen in their studios were systematically firing Jewish employees and replacing them with “Aryans.” When [Leon] Lewis broke that news to them in a secret meeting, they helped fund his operation [to spy on the FNG]…”

“Ross’s readers will not have to make much of a leap to see how anti-Semitism and white supremacy have erupted again in 21st-century America, dreaming of violence in the streets. It certainly makes me hope that many modern Leon Lewises are quietly at work underground in the alt-right, documenting the crimes at length and presenting their evidence to agencies and courts that will thwart fascism yet again.”

Because of Killian’s father’s membership in the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, he was labeled a “premature antifascist” by the FBI and blacklisted for years.  Some things never change.  With the invention of the new “Antifa” label. it’s once again open season on protesters.

Why Can’t Black Witches Get Some Respect in Popular Culture?

This long-form essay by Angelica Jade Bastién explores the way that cultural distortions have worked their way into the representations of black occult figures such as Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, on television and in films. Ms. Bastién highlights one film, Eve’s Bayou, as setting an example of how character development can embrace a sense of humanity and community.  From the essay:

“It may very well be naïve to expect historical truths and cultural sensitivity when it comes to filmmakers approaching black witches, whether they practice Wicca, hoodoo, or New Orleans voodoo. But as black political identity has become a vital criterion for how pop culture is judged, it seems foolish to ignore this lineage. I yearn to see black witches who are bold and unyielding, venomous and tenderhearted, solemn rural practitioners and silver-tongued city dwellers. I yearn to see black witches given interiority and narrative importance like their white counterparts, whether that be in prickly dramas that acknowledge the thorny history of the South or archly constructed supernatural fare. I yearn to see the culture of my ancestors explored in all its vibrant complexity, not whittled down in order to find new ways to frighten white people about the cultures they’ve had a hand in demonizing since this country’s beginning.”

Drums O Voodoo

An all black horror film from 1934, mentioned in Angelica Bastién’s article above.

Films Worth Talking About:

Pleasantville, Saving Private Ryan, A Simple Plan, Happiness, Elizabeth, Babe: Pig in the City, Shakespeare in Love, Life is Beautiful, Primary colors, Character, High Art, Men With Guns, Pi, The Truman Show, Antz, A Bug’s Life, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Mulan, The Prince of Egypt, Affliction, Clockwatchers, Déjà vu,

Insomnia, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Love is the Devil, Nil by Mouth, A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, Your Friends and Neighbors, Zero Effect, Beloved, Drifting Clouds, Hilary and Jackie, Living Out Loud, Love and Death on Long Island, Out of Sight, The Spanish Prisoner, There’s Something About Mary, The Thin Red Line, What Dreams May Come, Fallen Angels, Buffalo ’66, Fireworks, The Last Days of Disco, Funny Games, Taste of Cherry, The Celebration, The Big Lebowski, Rushmore, Waking Ned Devine, Following, The Idiots, The City of Lost Children, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, American History X, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, He Got Game, Ronin, Flowers of Shanghai, After Life, Eternity and a Day, Central Station, Run Lola Run, Patch Adams, [Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels]. Lovers of the Arctic Circle, Very Bad Things, The Legend of 1900, Stepmom, The Miracle of P. Tinto, [Black Cat, White Cat], The Negotiator, One True Thing, Blade, [Torrente, el brazo tonto de la ley], Sliding Doors, Little Voice, Under the Sun, Deep Impact, Ever After: A Cinderella Story, Apt Pupil3 A Civil Action, Judas Kiss, Godzilla, The Parent Trap, Wild Things, The Waterboy, Simon Burch, Divorce Iranian Style, Deep Rising, Rounders, BASEketball, Fallen, Small Soldiers, Croupier, The Interview, The Opposite of Sex, Pecker, Orphans, Gods and Monsters.

The Bigger Picture

FilmsMimic (1997), Metropolis (1927), M (1931), 12 Monkeys (1995), Brazil (1985), Blade Runner (1982), The Trial (1962)



The Word on the Street

[NOTE: The last time I looked, there were almost seven hundred user reviews of this film.]

Trevor Jones, one of my favorite movie composers, did the score for Dark City, and I must say it’s very apropos. The deep, bass vocals and frantic themes are some of my favorite aspects, but “Memories of Shell Beach” is a haunting, beautiful song as well. Some of my other favorite scores by him are the Dark Crystal and Last of the Mohicans.   [nitehawk-8]

If you like mind twisting movies that stick with you for days/weeks and make you question the human existence and our reality as we know it, then DARK CITY is the film for you.   [davidporter]

This is probably the best Sci-Fi-Film of the Nineties. Matrix is good, but this film is better. Both deal with the same question: What is reality? Not only was Dark City first, it also handles the subject much better and more adult than Matrix. Also its conclusion is far better than the one of Matrix.   [Darnoc]

Then there is the matter of the setting itself, for no science fiction film can be complete without a strong and symbolic setting. The setting is vast and detailed, and this isn’t just the city, which is a sight to behold in itself. The underground world of the strangers themselves is claustrophobic, atmospheric, and actually is the most alien in architecture, suggesting a twisted, surrealistic world, yet one that is dependent on the world above them. The city above ground displays a rich noir feel in which one feels that there is something sinister lurking underneath it’s surface. Even the blending of the time periods, seeing 30s architecture around 60s cars driven by people in 50s suits is even a hint off that the city has been fabricated out of different eras and pasts as one of the strangers even seems to suggest.   [john_murdock2002]

In the end, this is provocative stuff that successfully deals with the issue of human identity; is it our memories that do indeed define who we are, or is there so much more to it than that? Many science fiction films over the years have dealt with the idea of what makes us human, and “Dark City” admirably keeps up that tradition. Worth a watch for discerning genre fans.   [Hey_Sweden]

When I originally saw this in ’98 the first week it was out, I knew nothing about what to expect. As chance would have it, I was late to the theater and didn’t get into the auditorium until just as we’re moving in on the giant clock. I did not hear the opening studio-imposed narration or see anything prior to that clock. This not-quite-actually-existent version of the film I’d rate as unquestionably up there among the greatest films of all time. It was such a profound experience that for many years I refused to watch it on a smaller screen in digital and only finally did so on a top-of-the-line setup I knew was capable of actually some semblance of the dynamic range Proyas intended. That’s a long time with only a memory of a single film viewing. I’ve heard people having that sort of inability to bring themselves to watch Lawrence of Arabia on anything but 70mm projection. Dark City was sort of my Lawrence of Arabia. These subsequent much later viewings of Dark City, though not quite up to the film viewing, surprisingly had a similar emotional impact on me as the original. There is only one other film that had such an effect on me on the big screen that I hesitated to see it on the small screen later, but that one I still refuse to re-watch….

This film is begging for a new >4k re-telecine because the original telecine to digital was not great and the later 2k transfer for the director’s cut only did the additional footage and didn’t redo the original theatrical footage. Neither is up to modern standards now, but the theatrical transfer, in particular, has not aged well side-by-side on the bluray. Probably they need to go back to the original negatives, effects plates, and redo all the opticals digitally as was done on Aliens and Bladerunner. The first run prints of Dark City were unbelievably gorgeous like you cannot believe, with color and contrasts that I have never seen matched in any film before or since.   [benjaminwg]

And thinking about this movie, it seems to me that what we’re seeing is really an exaggerated version of the normal reality of city life such as what I experienced the other day. Consider how the other characters in the story don’t even think about the fact that they don’t have any specific memories and can’t tell anyone how to get to Shell Beach. They are just more or less doing what they need to do, running through the maze the Strangers have set up for them. Go into the automat, push the button, get what you need. Sadly this is very recognizable I’m sure to most people today, particularly those of us who live in the city. This film is reminding us to stay awake and constantly question authority and reality. It is also reminding us of how much of life and reality we miss every day simply by getting so focused on our own immediate needs and fears. These characters in this story pass each other in the night – they really do touch each other, even through the fog of cynicism and predatory sex and violence that lie at the heart of Dark City and film noir itself. And to whatever extent the film is successful, they touch us as well. I don’t think the film was trying to make a metaphysical/philosophical argument, but simply to remind us (as did some of the best episodes of “Twilight Zone” and the film “Blade Runner”) that there’s more to being human than simply satisfying our needs and wants, even though living in the city sometimes it feels like that’s all anyone is capable of.   [funkyfry]

High-Tempo, Genre-Spanning Gloom with an Arresting Visual Identity.    [drqshadow-reviews]