Sunday, November 16, 2008


Austrian novelist Franz Kafka would probably applaud everything but the aliens and the ending in “The Crow” director Alex Proyas’ “Dark City.” This gloomy but hopeful science-fiction murder-mystery features Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt and Kiefer Sutherland. Best when only gazed at, “Dark City” relies more on its hypnotic visuals than its shallow, predictable script.

Comparatively, “Dark City” resembles Orson Welles’ 1963 classic “The Trial,” based on the Kafka novel. An innocent man (Anthony Perkins) awakens one morning to find himself accused of an unknown crime that he didn’t commit in what resembles a police state. Kafka serves merely as an aesthetic departure point for “Dark City.” After establishing its metaphorical bond with Kafka, “Dark City” degenerates into a humdrum, happy-ending melodrama of the comic book variety.

Despite its stunning technical virtuosity, “Dark City” (** out of ****) frustrates anyone who scrutinizes its eye-popping style for a modicum of substance. Proyas’ cinematic effort delivers few fresh ideas with its contrived, low-brow saga about humanity, individuality and alien mind control. Worse, most of the ideas and imagery cobbled together in this predictable futuristic opus came from more entertaining movies. Suffice to say, “Dark City” contains more kaka than Kafka.

“Dark City” unravels as a pallid yarn about paranoia. Rufus Sewell of “Dangerous Beauty” impersonates a nondescript nobody who emerges as the savior of Proyas’ brooding potboiler. Waking up in a dingy bathtub in a strange hotel, John Murdoch (Sewell) finds blood leaking from his forehead. Afflicted with amnesia, he stumbles onto the naked corpse of a murdered hooker. No sooner has Murdoch gathered his wits than he gets a sudden phone call from creepy Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland of “Young Guns”). Murdoch learns that he is supposed to be a serial killer of prostitutes. Eluding an ominous gang of knife-wielding fiends, our hero embarks on a search for his identity.

Murdoch confronts a grave new world where the sun never shines. Everything grinds to a spooky halt every night at midnight. A bizarre cabal of aliens is secretly experimenting with humans. They want to see how people react to a variety of different circumstances. They change the memories of these poor humans as if their minds were Rubik’s cubes. These vaguely understood characters are called ‘Strangers.’ This pale, cadaverous mob dresses alike in long, black leather coats and dark hats to cover their white cue ball heads. Not only does sunlight irritate them, but they also abhor moisture.

We’re told by the mad scientist narrator that the ‘Strangers’ are as old as time. They travel great distances by levitation. Endowed with the power to alter physical reality by a telepathic process called ‘tuning,’ these dour ‘Strangers’ can create doors in walls where no portals existed. Visually, their power is depicted as a slinky-like series of transparent concentric circles rippling out from the center of their foreheads. Oddly enough, these ‘Strangers’ are dying. All men and one boy, they are convinced that their survival lies in mankind. Before they can achieve their goal, these ‘Strangers’ must deduce what makes mankind ‘human.’ The ‘Strangers’ have abducted humans and taken them to a world they have created to figure out what makes mankind tick.

“Dark City” has a drab, monolithic plot with several inherent theatrical flaws.

First, the filmmakers provide less than sensational heroics in the various skirmishes between the hero and the villains. “Dark City” fails to thrill because the leads are never in jeopardy. Moreover, when characters find themselves in danger, the challenge has a muted quality. The climactic ‘tuning’ battle between Mr. Book (Ian Richardson of “Man of La Mancha”) and Murdoch lacks a credible quotient of violence. Second, too many characters clutter up the film! Inspector Frank Bumstead, a supporting character who is clearly more interesting than Murdoch, should have been the hero. Further, the moviemakers should have combined Bumstead’s role with the insane victim cop, Eddie Walenski (Colin Friels of “Darkman”). Their synthesized characters would have made a more exciting hero. Third, we’re never told how the hero acquired his ability to ‘tune.’ This is a pretty serious flaw because ‘tuning’ makes Murdock equal to his enemies. Worse, Dr. Schreber has no idea either, and he is the guy who concocted the stuff that he injects into the foreheads of the human with his baroque syringes. Fourth, “Dark City” suffers because the filmmakers refuse to tell us enough about these enigmatic ‘Strangers.’ They are a cryptic bunch that occupies space somewhere between Uncle Fester of “The Adams Family” and Clive Barker’s Pin-Head.

William Hurt of “The Big Chill” appears as a hard-boiled, accordion-playing detective determined to capture Murdoch. Wasted in a subordinate role, Hurt has little chance to develop anything more than a sketchy character. While it’s always a pleasure to watch the eloquent Hurt, his cop character receives deplorable treatment. “Dark City” consigns sexy Jennifer Connelly to the cosmetic role of the woman-in-distress. Murdoch eventually gets around to saving her from the clutches of the Strangers near the end of the movie. Connelly and Sewell generate few sparks as lovers. She spends most of her screen time doing unremarkable things.

Droopy-eyed Kiefer Sutherland chews the scenery as a stereotypical Dr. Moreau geneticist with everything but a Peter Lorre sneer. He sports quirky clothes, adopts an accent and shuffles rather than walks. As one of the movie’s chief characters, Dr. Schreber strikes neither a villainous nor heroic posture. He mixes and matches genes in lab test tubes to draft new identities and memories. Proyas and his scenarists cannot figure out whether audiences should like or loathe him. Proyas generates an air of mystery, but this genre has been so overdone that “Dark City” illuminates nothing more than its own shortcomings. If Dungeons and Dragons entertain you, “Dark City” may mesmerize you.

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