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Upon awakening with a start in an icy bathtub in a strange room — with a woman's dead body inconveniently nearby — John Murdoch can't remember how he got there. With a police detective hot on his trail and a psychiatrist skulking around, Murdoch discovers that the key to his mystery is the presence of strange extraterrestrial creatures, the Strangers, who are experimenting with the memories of the humans in his city — from which there may be no escape. Ambitious sci-fi noir, with rich production design and a dense, Kafkaesque concept.
For more about Dark City and the Dark City Blu-ray release, see Dark City Blu-ray Review published by Dustin Somner on January 21, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Director: Alex Proyas
Writers: Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs, David S. Goyer
Starring: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Richard O'Brien, Melissa George
» See full cast & crew
Dark City Blu-ray Review
One of the greatest science fiction films of all time earns a controversial Blu-ray release.
Reviewed by Dustin Somner, January 21, 2010
Every sci-fi generation has a gold-standard that deserves recognition for its dense layering and memorable impact on movie-going audiences. Depending on your age, that film could be 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner, or any other visionary masterpiece that moved you in some way. In my case, that experience arrived in the form of a film I'd heard little about, but managed to garner a double-feature engagement with The Devil's Advocate at my local second-run theater. Granted this was twelve years ago, but I still remember my first viewing of Dark City like it was yesterday. Stepping out of the auditorium with a giant grin on my face, I made it my mission to recommend the film to everyone with even the slightest interest in cerebral science fiction. I know it may seem bold to place Dark City among the ranks of science fiction's elite, but I truly believe this masterpiece deserves widespread recognition for delivering one of the greatest initial viewings of all time.
I typically include a synopsis at this point in the review, but Dark City will be the first case where I throw that practice out the window. As much as that might disappoint some readers, I know a discussion of the plotline would represent a great disservice to anyone who's stumbling onto the film for the first time. I can't tell you the number of situations where I've accidentally read a spoiler, or unavoidably overheard a conversation among co-workers regarding the big reveal at the end of some film I happened to missed during opening weekend. Since I'm not going to be that guy, I'll focus this review more on the themes that make Dark City such a pleasure to watch time and time again.
If I had to pick one element in the film that makes the first viewing memorable, it would be the way director Alex Proyas structures the story. From the moment John Murdock (Rufus Sewell) awakens to find himself lying naked in the bathtub of a dead prostitute's apartment, we embark on a journey of discovery that introduces new clues around every corner. On the run from mysterious "Strangers", Murdoch is a clean slate with no knowledge of his surroundings and fractured memories of his past. Little things such as a postcard of "Shell Beach" or a picture-book with no pictures become keys to unlocking the puzzle of his existence. Within this atmosphere, there's a foreboding presence of dread as we gradually learn about the relationship between humanity and the mysterious underground society of pale-skinned men.
Despite my appreciation for the film, critics almost universally panned Dark City as a stylistic tour-de-force that lacked substance. I'm not sure what film they were watching, but that assessment couldn't be further from the truth. I'll agree with the opinion that Alex Proyas drenched Dark City in as much atmosphere as his directorial debut (The Crow), but the layered dimensions of his storytelling are the driving force behind the visuals. You never get the feeling he's simply presenting environments or special effects in an effort to "wow" the audience, since every nuance of the film-noir setting plays a role in the revelations to come. Descend below the surface and you'll soon discover a multitude of themes that truly make you think. The villains of the film are humanized to an extent most viewers won't grasp on their initial viewing and John shows fleeting moments of childish glee as he wields new-found powers. In this manner, the lines between our good-guy and his enemy are obscured on repeat viewings, though the overall message remains the same.
Prior to The Knowing, Alex Proyas had an unblemished record of attracting ideal candidates for the lead role in his films. Beginning with the tragic breakout performance of Brandon Lee in The Crow, and continuing with Rufus Sewell in Dark City, these films require the emotional presence to draw the audience into their journey of suffering and awakening. I couldn't imagine anyone better than Rufus Sewell in the part of a wide-eyed John Murdock, who accepts the difficult task of running around like a fish out of water through most of the film. Equally impressive is the beautiful Jennifer Connelly as John's wife Emma, and a reality-grounding performance from John Hurt as Inspector Bumstead. Out of all the performances in the film, Richard O'Brien (Rocky Horror Picture Show) deserves the most credit for his role as the villainous Mr. Hand. Considering the talent he's surrounded by, O'Brien consistently overshadows the ensemble cast with his snake-like dialog and terrifying facial expressions. The only performance I wouldn't classify as exceptional is Keifer Sutherland's portrayal of Dr. Schreber, a sniveling coward with a highly important connection to humanity's plight. Perhaps Sutherland wasn't the right choice for the part, or he simply tried too hard, but this isn't the best we've seen of him during his lengthy career as an actor.
Of note, this Blu-ray edition presents the director's cut of the film, which adds approximately eleven minutes to the theatrical edition (also included on the disc). Most of the changes are subtle character-building extensions, which help to even out the pacing of the film. Jennifer Connelly fans will be pleased to know her own voice was reinserted for the full-length nightclub songs, which feature more of the beautiful actress in her slinky cocktail dress. If you'd like to know exactly what special effects and scenes have changed, there's an optional text-based feature that flashes explanations of the altered footage throughout the film.
Dark City Blu-ray, Video Quality
Presented in 1080p utilizing the VC-1 codec (at an average bitrate of 23Mbps), Dark City is destined to remain one of the most controversial Blu-ray transfers on the market. Given the number of times I revisited the film on DVD, this newly-minted high-definition offering delivers a tremendous upgrade in coloring, black levels, and contrast, but the most profound improvement arrives in the form of increased clarity. I know I'm facing a hoard of videophiles preparing to decry any mention of exceptional clarity on this release, so before I go any further I should make light of New Line's continued employment of digital noise reduction to remove film grain. Similar to the release of Pan's Labyrinth (another exceptional film), the overall nature of the transfer appears plenty sharp, but upon closer inspection reveals a subtle drop in texturing across medium-distanced facial close-ups and intricacies on the fine stitching of clothing. Furthermore, slight halos occasionally surface around sharp transitions between dark and light aspects of the transfer, but their presence will only become noticeable if you're studying the transfer with the intention of finding flaws. If we get down to specifics, I noticed one scene where aliasing became noticeable within the parallel lines of the drawn shades over a brightly lit window (1:16:10).
Despite my opinion of the transfer's highly-competent visual experience, I'm aware the application of DNR will be a deal-breaker to some Blu-ray enthusiasts. As such, I've attempted to incorporate a wide variety of screenshots to give each viewer the opportunity to decide for themselves.
Dark City Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Regardless of your opinion regarding New Line's remastering of the transfer, there's little reason to complain when given a lossless 7.1 audio mix. The primary strength of the track lies in the musical score by composer Trevor Jones, who effectively builds a subtle base of tension, before beating us down with thunderous overtones. As the film initially opens, viewers are intimately aware of John's Murdock's state of despair and confusion, but those emotions are twice as powerful with the dichotomy of fast moving stringed instruments and ominous brass-horned crescendo's. The roar of the orchestra usually accompanies the appearance of the mysterious "Strangers" as they glide into view, building the sense of foreboding with every step. A perfect example of this effect is the opening scene when the black-clothed figures emerge from the elevator of John's apartment building. If you already own Dark City or have access to a copy, watch that scene and either mute the volume or imagine the effectiveness of the visuals if the musical score didn't play a role.
As much as I enjoyed the arrangements throughout Dark City, there are certain stretches where the score becomes repetitive. The two jazzy numbers performed by Jennifer Connelly certainly help, but the film could use a bit more variety to spice things up. Additionally, there's a tendency for dialog to become lost at times, since most characters speak at low volume levels and compete with the musical numbers that dominate the background during all but a handful of scenes. I wouldn't consider it a deficiency of the audio track (since I found it easy to make out every word spoken), but in an ideal world the dialog would possess a richness that matches the proficiency of other elements in the mix.
Dark City Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Considering the primary supplement on the disc is the inclusion of the director's cut of the film (while still incorporating the original theatrical edition), I can't complain extensively about New Line's decision to provide the special features in 480p. Having said that, the main reason I've graded the supplement section a 4/5 is due to the lack of high definition content.
Director's Cut: There are three full-length commentary tracks on the director's cut alone. The first is a candid offering from Alex Proyas, who delves into the themes he was striving for and provides an in-depth analysis of each scene. The second track features David Goyer and Lem Dobbs (screenwriters), who discuss many of the same elements addressed by Proyas. The third track features film critic Roger Ebert, who gives an extensive dissertation on film history and the connections you can make between Dark City and other classics (easily the best commentary of the bunch).
Theatrical Cut: The same commentary tracks included on the original DVD release are included on the menu of the theatrical option. The first track features Alex Proyas, David Goyer, Lem Dobbs, Dariusz Wolski (cinematographer), and Patrick Tatopoulos (production designer), while the second features an earlier commentary by Roger Ebert (different than the one provided on the director's cut). I spot-checked these commentaries to ensure correct functionality, but chose not to revisit them individually.
Introduction by Alex Proyas (DTS 2.0, 4:50 min): Roger Ebert and Alex Proyas set expectations for the director's cut and reflect on the cult status of the film.
Memories of Shell Beach (DTS 2.0, 42:54 min): Beginning with an introduction to the creation of the story, this featurette delves into all facets of the production, and eventually provides a ten minute discussion of the film's reception.
The Architecture of Dreams (DTS 2.0, 33:40 min): What begins as an overly cerebral study on postmodernism eventually works its way into a discussion of the science fiction genre and the extensive use of thematic elements in Dark City.
The Metropolis Comparison (text-based): This collection of articles and reviews delves superficially into the connections between Dark City and Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
Neil Gaiman on Dark City (text-based): Gaiman offers a two paragraph assessment of the film.
Rounding out the extras, we have a high-definition trailer for the film (extremely well constructed with zero dialog).
Dark City Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Like Blade Runner before it, Dark City is a film that many dismissed during the original theatrical run, but earned tremendous respect in the years to follow. The science fiction community needed a breakout production to renew the faith of genre fans everywhere, and that's exactly what Alex Proyas set out to do. If you haven't seen Dark City, there's never been a better time than the present, especially in light of the superior director's cut offering on this release. For all fans of mind-bending sci-fi entertainment, Dark City earns my highest recommendation.
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