Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Dark City: Director's Cut / **** (1998)

The opportunity to revisit “Dark City” ten years from whence it found its way into the imaginations of a generation of eloquent and sophisticated movie-goers is, in many ways, just as staggering as it is rewarding. A personal barometer for which most (if not all) films have been measured in the years since, the film endures with me as one of the ageless, nourishing visions of modern cinema, significant for the fact that it attained a certain scope of detail that continues to drive the true promise of filmmaking. When I wrote my first series of online reviews in the summer of 1998, here was the film that I would proudly call the benchmark of my critiquing inspiration – and now a decade has passed, time has caught up with me, and both the movie and I meet once again at the center of the spiral. It is amazing how important things have a way of taking you on long journeys, only to end up bringing you right back to the place where you started.

Oh, but this reunion takes a completely unorthodox turn – one, it must be said, important enough to encourage me to abandon my rule of not re-reviewing films of the past. The difference now, of course, is that “Dark City” is not the same movie it once was – rather, it has founds its way back onto the New Release shelves in special “Director’s Cut” packaging: “111 Minutes,” the back cover reveals, indicating the new transfer of the film is nearly 15 minutes longer than its original theatrical incarnation – and 15 minutes can (and often does) emphasize much potential change and alteration, particularly when it comes to endeavors as deeply involved as this. It is some consolation, at least, that the movie’s director Alex Proyas (the man who would make the misguided “I, Robot”) chooses not to overhaul the vision, but to simply expand, enrich and add occasional details to his endeavor that were nothing more than just vague ideas before. No, there are no great changes between either version, but the differences are subtle enough to add to the complexity of the film’s mystery without interrupting its rhythm.

The premise still provokes a sense of awe. John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a bathtub, confused and absent-minded, completely unaware of who he is or what his life consists of. Enigmatically warned by a doctor on a phone that his memory “was erased” in an experiment-gone-wrong, he urgently flees the scene of a gruesome murder he has no recollection of, and is pursued through the shadowy metropolis by a group of bald albino-like men who call themselves the Strangers. Who are they? What do they want with him? And why is he so important when he so clearly has no idea why any of this is happening?

Mysteries are abundant in the fabric of Proyas’ screenplay, which he co-wrote with Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer (now of “The Dark Knight” fame). Much like a 1940s film noir, the story filters its energy through intrigue and perception, and audiences spend a good majority of time simply observing and collecting clues before the true nature of the narrative is ready to reveal itself. Unlike most directors, who might have over-emphasized the plot’s riddles and hand-fed the clues to its viewers, Proyas is keen to allow finer details to blend in with the foreground; it is the type of movie in which pieces to the puzzle are acquired only by concentrating on them through the camouflage. Consider an early scene in which Murdoch comes down to the lobby of his hotel, and the clerk reminds him to fetch his wallet from the automat in order to update payments to his room. Here is a scene of seemingly no consequence, until we return to the lobby much later on and hear the hotel clerk recall his conversation with Murdoch to police officials and realize, almost accidentally, that the guy behind the counters is a completely different man.

The strangers, we are reminded, are a race of alien beings, housed in the corpses of dead humans, who share a collective consciousness and are intrigued by the individuality of man. Their civilization on the brink of extinction, they are eager to study, exploit and acquire the secrets of the human psyche in order to understand what makes us the way we are, hopefully finding a cure to their own impending mortality in the process. Every midnight, when both hands hit that fearful 12 on the clock face, the alien beings shut down the city and remodel their creation through a telekinetic process they refer to as “tuning.” During that process, all the city’s residents are put into a deep sleep, while personalities and memory banks are extracted from various individuals and then injected into others, essentially to see how people respond and behave when their individuality is compromised by being in control of someone else’s history (an average Joe, for instance, can be made into a wealthy billionaire simply by the flick of a single syringe). Furthermore, the city in which they study humans is not even a city at all, but rather a giant fabricated habitat invented by an alien machine based on stolen memories over several generations. For all their misdeeds towards humanity, we often admire the audacity of these Strangers; here, their metropolitan laboratory contains visual traces of some of the defining styles in modern architecture, ranging from the gothic to the industrial.

Everything that is important, and crucial, to the underlying cerebral experience that is “Dark City” exists with continuity in this director’s cut, although there are a couple of minor changes from the original version that do warrant emphasis. The most notable: a sub-plot involving a hooker and Murdoch, which existed for seemingly no other purpose in the original cut other than to propel the idea that Murdoch’s fuzzy memories of himself as a prostitute killer may or may not have even been his own. In this new version, the hooker now has a young daughter, who peeks at others from behind a curtain with a certain fearful curiosity, and whose eyes witness a great tragedy later in the film that results in one of the film’s most heart-breaking scenes. The other distinct change to the movie’s thrust involves the opening sequence, in which both a crucial voice-over and a series of establishing shots are removed and then relocated to various scattered moments later in the picture. We sense that Proyas’ motivation for this change is to deepen the challenge on part of the audience to solve the mystery (the original opening does, in fact, give a lot of stuff away), but in the process he also upsets the balance of his sense of foreshadowing. The new beginning is no longer so creepy and mysterious that it begs for further viewing; rather, it exists as if to just satisfy a footage requirement before the real story gets underway following the opening credits.

Other changes are mostly dialogue-related, while frequent viewers will no doubt be the only ones who detect a notable difference in the film’s two nightclub sequences (the original cut featured different lead vocals, while this new one allows Jennifer Connelly’s original singing to remain in-tact). Also in keeping with the trend of most famous movie-makers revisiting and tweaking their past classics, Proyas takes the incentive to update certain special effects as well, although he doesn’t really need to; as dated as they may be ten years after the fact, they were never really cheesy nor obvious in context with the material in the first place. A few extra digital alterations have no purpose in the movie, and more often than not they compete too harshly with older technology. If your movie is a decade old, why go to the trouble of trying to make it look current, especially if it was so close to perfection in the first place?

What does “Dark City” mean now, in the present, and amidst a wave of endeavors that have continued to keep the focus of thought-provoking science fiction highly regarded? Moreso than being skillful and opulent from a technical perspective as well as the narrative, the movie’s underlying ideas speak to us in ways that enrich the understanding of our own psychology. Murdoch exists in a vacuum so tightly isolated from social norms that he relies entirely on human instinct in order to progress – because the memories cannot be trusted. Who are people without their own memories? Do they ever really occupy a space between then and now if they have never lived or experienced the things that they have been forced to recall? The very roots of the screenplay arouse our desire to investigate. If anything can be said of the movie that keeps it relevant in a time when ideas are of a different supply, it’s that it is one of the few movies of years past that endures not because it has a lot to say, but because it inspires its viewers to say more. To the credit of its director, Proyas doesn’t look at his endeavor exclusively through psychological tunnel vision, and at the surface concocts a rousing and stimulating entertainment with great visual energy. But ultimately, his is a movie in which the answers to the riddles come no easier to us than the answers to our own existence. Ten years after the fact, even with an occasional alteration thrown in, we begin to understand why it all still resonates.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Sci-Fi (US); 1998; Rated R for violent images and some sexuality; Running Time: 111 Minutes

Rufus Sewell: John Murdoch
Kiefer Sutherland: Dr. Daniel Poe Schreber
Jennifer Connelly: Emma Murdoch
Richard O'Brien: Mr. Hand
Ian Richardson: Mr. Book
William Hurt: Frank Bumstead
Bruce Spence: Mr. Wall
Colin Friels: Eddie Walenski

Produced by Michael De Luca, Barbara Gibbs, Andrew Mason, Alex Proyas and Brian Witten; Directed by Alex Proyas; Written by Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer

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