1998's Dark City was part of a mini-wave of allegorical science-fiction on the big screen. Before CGI threatened ideas with extinction, Dark City, The Truman Show (also 1998) and The Matrix all explored one man's existential journey to understanding while trapped in a world not of his making. As co-screenwriter Lem Dobbs has pointed out, Dark City is also a pastiche. It incorporates influences from Plato's allegory of the cave to Fritz Lang's Metropolis and film noir (I would also note the similarity to Gene Roddenberry's original Star Trek pilot "The Cage"). Director Alex Proyas assembles his inspirations into a unique amalgam with the power of myth to tap the fears and desires of our collective unconscious.
In an oppressive metropolis, a man named John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes to amnesia and a dead prostitute. From this noirish starting point, Proyas follows Murdoch as he pieces together his identity and the nature of the world in which he lives. He has a wife (Jennifer Connelly) he can't remember, a creepy doctor (Keifer Sutherland, putting on an asthmatic cadence and eccentric movement), and creepy bald stalkers, striking figures in wide-brimmed hats and high-necked longcoats. These representatives from a literally underground organization have designs on Murdoch and the city, which shifts and reconstructs itself on a daily basis. "Daily basis" is perhaps the wrong turn of phrase for a city always under cover of night and without any reliable basis.
In its particulars, Dark City is sometimes purposefully vague, and once can imagine a sharper film that served its narrative with more specificity while still maintaining its existential mystery. Many of the questions the script by Proyas, Dobbs and David S. Goyer raises could be described as plot holes. What specific results, for example, do the underground "Strangers" hope to gain by their midnight activities, which seem impractical and haphazard at best? We're meant to sweep such questions under the rug in favor of the film's philosophical texture, and given Proyas' imaginative and absorbingly visual treatment of the material, it's a worthwhile bargain.
Patrick Tatopoulos' production design ranks with the best of the '90s, abetted by Liz Keogh's costume designs, and Dariusz Woski's lush photography. The idea of hidden machinery beneath a city powered by the psyche is a potent metaphor for audiences feeling the claustrophobic contours of a thoroughly urbanized "first world." It's also a Freudian image of personality, the gears of which often chug along unallayed by our conscious statements of intent (discussion of "collective memories" in a world that disrupts people's personal unconscious furthers the Jungian vibe). Proyas allows the human race hope, represented by a vision of the sun-dappled Shell Beach that, though false, has the potential to be reclaimed by humanity. In Proyas' preferred director's cut (like Blade Runner, eschewing studio-suggested opening narration), this dark film truly shines.
New Line deserves a big pat on the back for this deluxe reissue of Dark City, new and improved, in twin Blu-Ray and DVD editions. Apart from the financial investment (wise, I'm sure) of allowing director Alex Proyas a spruced-up Director's Cut, there can be no question that this is a definitive special edition. Both cuts of the film are here, along with five audio commentaries (three of them new) and a host of other extras, including some great new ones unique to this release.
The picture quality is a major leap forward from the old DVD. Some may quibble over the effects of the DNR (Digital Noise Reduction) process, and there's a slight vertical jitter, but the film looks awfully good, with significant added detail and bold color that obviously improve on our ability to take in Proyas' vision as he intended it. The film also gets a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that's truly intense.
Blu-Ray gets an exclusive Director's Cut Fact Track that film scholars and Dark City fans won't want to miss out on: the subtitle pop-up track details every single change made from the theatrical cut, including additions to dialogue, changes and additions to special effects and audio, all added or moved shots, and all alternate takes. The track also includes some cool "factoids," so there's never a dull moment.
"Introduction by Alex Proyas" (4:50) is actually shared almost equally by the director and his biggest booster, film critic Roger Ebert. The Director's Cut also features three new commentaries: one with Proyas, one with writers Lem Dobbs & David S. Goyer (adapted and expanded from their sessions for the theatrical-cut commentary), and one with Ebert (obviously recorded before July 2006 and the worst of his health complications). Proyas and Ebert directly address the Director's Cut and its sundry improvements to the film, but unless you're planning to quit your day job to take it all in, you might want to sample these tracks (prioritize Ebert's always-interesting musings) and proceed to the excellent new documentaries.
"Memories of Shell Beach" (42:54) is a terrific retrospective that runs the gamut of the cast and crew's experiences on the film. We get a look at some storyboards, hear about weirding out the MPAA, and see star and amateur shutterbug Rufus Sewell present the many photos he took on the set. The participants are Proyas, Dobbs, Goyer, Sewell, Richard O'Brien, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, costume designer Liz Keogh, and second unit director Bruce Hunt.
"The Architecture of Dreams" (33:40) intriguingly "unpacks" various meanings of the film. The feature presents five perspectives on Dark City: "A Postmodern Film" (Lem Dobbs), "Identity Theft" (UCLA professor Vivian Sobchak), "Worlds Constructed" (NYU professor Dana Polan), "Cities as Spectacle & Collective Memories" (Lem Dobbs and Roger Ebert), and "Memoirs of My Nervous Illness by Daniel Paul Schreber" (Alex Proyas and Rosemary Dinnage). Kudos to New Line for providing the academic slant. Part of the fun, of course, is deciding which ideas you acknowledge and which you think are pretentious poppycock.
In the category of previously released extras are the commentary with Proyas, Dobbs and Goyer, DP Dariusz Wolski, and production designer Patrick Tatopoulos (recorded separately and edited together), as well as the original commentary with Ebert. The latter is a real treat, especially since we haven't heard much from our old pal of late, and this is such an energetic reading of the film. There's also the Production Gallery of concept art and stills, the Theatrical Trailer, and a set of text-based features: "Neil Gaiman on Dark City" (the equivalent of liner notes) and The Metropolis Comparison, comprising an essay comparing Dark City to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, an original 1927 review of Metropolis by H.G. Wells, and the original Weekly Variety review of Metropolis (cool).
When they make the lists of the year's best discs, expect Dark City: Director's Cut to be on it.
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