Dark City

If you took Blade Runner, Brazil, Alphaville, Hellraiser, and 12 Monkeys, mooshed them all together, then snorted some chimney soot and sneezed all over the celluloid, the result would look very much like Dark City. This hopelessly lifeless and derivative fantasy has gotten hefty praise in some quarters, most loudly from Roger Ebert, a lifelong sci-fi fan who actually gave it four stars (maybe he snorted too much chimney soot). It’s the second film by Alex Proyas, who previously directed The Crow; Proyas’ achievement here is to make a more incomprehensible movie than The Crow, which I had not thought possible. He has indeed topped himself.

Rufus Sewell stars as John Murdoch, a man with serious memory lapses. He is wanted by the police for a series of prostitute killings, he is married to Jennifer Connolly, and he can’t remember any of it. (I can understand not remembering Jennifer Connolly, who may, for all I know, be a woman of many talents; acting is not among them.) A detective, underplayed by a slumming William Hurt, is on Murdoch’s trail; so is a limping psychiatrist, played by Kiefer Sutherland with an. Unusual verbal tic that. Requires him to pause. After every few words. Like this.

It turns out that a black-leather-clad society of bald guys is running everything, putting everyone in the city to sleep at midnight and rearranging stuff: “Let’s make this building bigger and that building skinnier, and let’s get some nice coffee tables in here.” They also like to switch people’s identities — it’s all part of some experiment they’re performing on humans to see how they react (“Hey, where’d this coffee table come from?”). Perhaps they switched Roger Ebert’s identity with that of a very easily impressed 12-year-old; I hope they switch him back.

I gave up on following Dark City about five minutes after I gave up on trying to see it. My semi-annual lecture to hotshot directors: There is this thing called a “screen,” and the audience sits facing the screen, and images are projected onto this screen so as to create visual entertainment. No matter how elaborate the sets are, if the lighting is so dim that we cannot see them, we might as well be looking up our own asses for two hours. Movies like this and The Crow (Dariusz Wolski shot both films — it’s encouraging that people who are apparently blind can get work as cinematographers) aren’t really designed to be followed or enjoyed — not by sober viewers. They’re for college kids who prepare by getting stoned in the parking lot: “Dude, what if we are not who we think we are? Wow. That’s profound, man.”

So, back to the plot: Murdoch, it seems, has mysterious powers like those of the Hellraiser-clone bald guys. His expression gets real intense, as if he’s channeling the hidden forces of the universe (either that or he’s passing a kidney stone), and suddenly a door appears out of nowhere, or a bridge crumbles under the feet of his pursuers. Who gave him these powers? I’ll tell you who: Lazy screenwriters (Lem Dobbs, of Kafka, and David S. Goyer, of the Crow sequel) who haven’t thought of creative ways to get the hero out of a jam and have to resort to deus ex machina.

During the climax (so heart-pounding that I only nodded off once!), Murdoch faces off against one of the bald guys; they stand in mid-air frowning at each other while all hell breaks loose around them. Evil loses, good triumphs, and a new world is born. A world with sunlight and beaches, and probably ice cream and kittens, too. Dark City is one of the most ludicrous movies in years. Roger, lay off that soot.

Explore posts in the same categories: one of the year's worst, overrated, science fiction

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