I had read a lot of great things about Dark City. Apparently, it has garnered a cult following, and film critic Roger Ebert has a raging boner for it. But that’s the thing about cult movies. Usually, they aren’t popular for a reason. Sometimes they can turn out great, like Evil Dead. However, most of the time, they suck ass. Dark City is that kind of movie.
Watching it, you can tell that at one point the script was probably good. It tries to tell a complex tale of an amnesiac who suddenly gains telekinetic powers. There are some genuine high-concept ideas as the film poses questions about the nature of personality and memory. If your memories were given to someone else, would that person become you? Would they retain their original personality? What really defines us as individuals? It’s cool stuff, for sure, but it is handled the same way you would handle dogshit: grab it in a plastic bag and throw it away as fast as possible.
Dark City is a great example of a movie that had set up all the pieces correctly, but failed in the execution of every single one of them. The once-good script must have had important parts excised in order to fit the movie into an appropriate running time, the pacing is all off, the acting is fucking atrocious, the special effects are laughable, and nobody acts how a normal person should act.
First, the pacing. The movie races through its running time from beginning to end. None of the scenes are given any time to breathe. The characters show up, say their lines, do whatever they are supposed to do, and then – BAM – smash cut to the next scene. The camera never lingers, the actors don’t have a chance to emote as they are constantly spouting dialog, and there is no build-up of atmosphere.
The world-building takes a back-seat to a LET’S HAVE SHIT HAPPENING RIGHT NOW ethos. If they had taken their time, introduced the audience to the world gradually, then the movie would have been far better. The music makes this worse, because the score in every scene sounds like the goddamn climax of the movie. How can it be the climax when it’s the first fucking scene? Who the fuck knows what they were thinking? Listening to this movie is fucking exhausting.
Second, the acting. Jesus fucking Christ, there is some shitty acting in this movie. It has an OK cast including Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, William Hurt, and Jennifer Connelly. None of them are exactly what I’d call the cream of the crop in terms of acting talent, but I’ve seen all of them turn in good performances in other movies. Here, they all suck.
Sewell runs from place to place, looking scared and confused and constipated the entire time, and, like the audience, he doesn’t have a clue what the fuck is going on. And I don’t mean the character, I mean the actor. Sutherland spits out his lines in this staccato, exasperated voice that is the exact opposite of good. Clearly, the director wanted something out of him, but all I got was that he was constantly out of breath. Hurt does his usual thing of stern, monotone guy, and his lines just don’t have any weight or impact. Connelly is by far the worst offender is this cinematic turd. She goes throughout the entire movie flat-faced, without emotion, sleepily reciting her lines, and looking like she doesn’t give a single fuck about this movie. In one scene in particular, Connelly discovers a recently murdered body, she turns to run away and is caught by Hurt. Instead of screaming hysterically like a normal person, she robotically says, “What are you doing here?” Her performance rivals famous robotic performances like Scarlett Johanssen in The Avengers and January Jones in everything she’s ever been in.
Third, the cheese factor. Yes, the special effects are super cheesy. Mostly they consist of bad CGI buildings twisting and rising out of the ground. Or shots of models of buildings that are supposed to make us think we are looking at a metropolis, but end up looking exactly like models. And then there is the telekinetic power effect, where waves of translucent energy shoot out of Sewell’s head. In the climax, Sewell and the main bad guy shoot energy beams out of their foreheads at each other. The world is crashing down around them, and they just stare at each other, not moving, not grimacing like this is taking a lot of effort, just staring while some CGI-shit works its magic. It’s like a scene straight out of Dragonball Z, except far worse. This is certainly the fault of the director for not telling his actors to fucking act like they are doing something. He preferred to have them stand there woodenly.
Fourth, nobody acts like a normal goddamn person. There is a character who is similar to Sewell’s. He was a cop who was investigating murders and went crazy. He acts like a goddamn lunatic, bouncing off the walls in every scene. Then, he meets Sewell and has a nice leisurely conversation with him. Of course, he ultimately throws himself in front of a train. But the fact is, his entire demeanor changed. His memories weren’t changed because he still knew about all the bad shit that was going on. The writer just got lazy.
Hurt’s character, another cop, spends the bulk of the movie chasing Sewell, whom he believes to be a serial killer. He eventually teams up with Sewell, but why he does is never explained. Basically, he knows something is wrong with the world, he arrests Sewell, then Sewell demonstrates his telekinetic powers, and suddenly Hurt helps him to escape, kidnaps a psychiatrist, and tries to bust out of the city. Hello? Logic? Where are you? You must be on vacation.
There were a couple of things I did like about the movie. I really dug the whole 1950s style of the city and wardrobe. The production design was by far the most interesting thing going on. I also like how one of the villains is this little kid who says his lines like “We must kill him” in his high-pitched little kid voice. In one scene, Sewell is about to fall off a building, but is barely clinging on. The little kid bites his hand in the fakest looking bite I’ve ever scene, and Sewell ACTS HIS FUCKING HEAD OFF screaming like he just took a chainsaw to the nuts. The only other part I liked is when Melissa George from Alias got naked and showed off her boobs.
Like I said before, the script was probably good at one point. But the gaps in character logic, such as Hurt joining Sewell, makes me think additional scenes were cut. Also, why were the aliens using corpses as vessels, and where the hell were they getting food on a giant city in space with no sunlight, water, or farmland? Those ideas may have been in the original script, but didn’t make it to the screen. Although, if they weren’t, I wouldn’t be surprised. After all, it was written by David Goyer, the same genius behind Kickboxer 2, The Crow 2, Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys, and Jumper.
The movie was shitty and hokey and most of the issues lie with hack director Alex Proyas. His resume includes such gems as The Crow, I Robot, and Knowing. When his other movies include goths, Will Smith fighting robots, and Nicolas Cage predicting the future, you know that he is the best possible director for this movie. The fact that this movie has a dedicated following proves that cult movies are popular for reasons other than the movie being any good. And since Roger Ebert loves it, well, it’s probably because he rewatched that scene with naked Melissa George a million times.
And what about the ending? Sewell is victorious and the first thing he does is BUILD A FUCKING BEACH instead of turning the spaceship around and heading back to Earth. Although, he was doing it to get in Connelly’s pants, and that certainly isn’t a bad idea.