New Line // 1998 // 111 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // July 29th, 2008
They built the city to see what makes us tick. Last night one of us went off.
Well, not now exactly. Read this review first, and then sleep.
J. Murdoch (Rufus Sewell, The Illusionist) awakes in a bathtub in a shoddy hotel room that happens to be the scene of a gruesome murder. He has no idea who he is or what he's doing there. A cryptic telephone call from the mysterious Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland, The Lost Boys) sends Murdoch fleeing from a group of frightening pale men in fedoras and black trenchcoats. Murdoch's quest to discover who he is leads him to darker and more terrifying truths.
Meanwhile, Murdoch's apparent connection to the murders of six prostitutes leads Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman) to Murdoch's estranged wife, a chanteuse named Emma (Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind). It's a case he inherited from a colleague whose paranoiac rants about shadowy conspiracies have ruined his career and personal life. It's only a matter of time before Bumstead crosses paths with Murdoch and the men who pursue him.
That's all I'll say about the film's plot. If you've already seen Dark City, you know what happens. If you haven't seen Dark City, remedy that situation tout de suite.
Alex Proyas's Dark City opens with both feet firmly planted in noir territory. Film noir classics from Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Somewhere in the Night to Jack Hively's Street of Chance to Roy William Neill's Black Angel love the trope of the amnesiac on a quest to discover his own identity (and clear himself of a murder he firmly believes, but isn't absolutely certain, he didn't commit). Almost imperceptibly at first, Dark City begins to pile on tropes from science fiction and horror, all wrapped in an exotic production design inspired by German Expressionism (particularly Fritz Lang's Metropolis and F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu) and the cold fluorescent chiaroscuro of paintings by Edward Hopper (Nighthawks). The result of Proyas' precocious melding of genres and visual styles is a movie that's as smart and surprising as it is beautiful to look at.
I could go on and on about the ingenious structure of the screenplay and the splendid execution of shot after shot, but I'm trying to avoid spoiling any of the movie's many joys and surprises for those who haven't seen it. In the documentary included on this disc, film critic Roger Ebert defines "generous filmmakers" as those who give their audiences more than they need to in order to tell their stories. In Dark City, Ebert asserts, Proyas is a generous filmmaker. Ebert's correct. Dark City is so loaded with visual splendor that it's a movie to be studied, to be absorbed over and over again into the senses. If that weren't enough, the structurally sound and rigorously paced screenplay wrestles with big ideas worth pondering. Dark City is an art house film with the heart of a fast-paced entertainment, or vice versa -- a movie that makes you think while it entertains the hell out of you with real suspense, intelligent plot twists, heart-pounding action, and a revved-up finale. It's that rarest sort of cinematic gem that both encourages and rewards repeat viewings.
This new director's cut of Dark City runs a full 11 minutes longer than the original theatrical cut, though the vast majority of the changes are subtle extensions to existing scenes. The most noticeable change is the removal of the Kiefer Sutherland narration that opens the theatrical cut. Though the opening was brief, its removal is a huge improvement as it provided information that is better discovered as you share Murdoch's journey. Two entire subplots are added to the picture: one involving a prostitute's daughter, the other the curlicues of Murdoch's fingerprints. Neither provides huge revelations or a radical reorganization of the film's already taut plotting, but, as with the scene extensions, both make the already immersive world Proyas creates even more so. Another noticeable improvement is the restoration of Jennifer Connelly's singing voice to two scenes in which Emma belts it out in a nightclub. Connelly's voice isn't as good as the professional singer who overdubbed her in the theatrical version, but her delivery matches her performance. The second number, in particular, suffers in the theatrical cut from the vocals being inappropriately dynamic in the context of Connelly's soft and sultry lip-syncing.
In addition to the editorial differences, the director's cut has been re-color timed. The image is discernibly brighter, offering more detail without sacrificing any of the picture's chiaroscuro lighting. Fear not, the city remains dark but isn't as murky as in the theatrical cut. This fundamental change in the film's presentation means that the transfer of the director's cut is more pleasing to the eye than the theatrical version -- detail is sharper; colors slightly more saturated. Both versions are presented in full 1080p resolution, but the theatrical cut is significantly murkier and less detailed than the director's cut. It still looks better than its DVD counterpart, though.
Audio is spectacular. The DTS HD surround mix is subtle when necessary, but flat-out bombastic when it comes time for action. Low-frequency effects are superb. During one scene in particular, a low ambient hum will rattle the knick knacks off your shelves if you have the sound cranked up enough. The movie's score and dialogue are crystal clear and perfectly mixed.
This new release of Dark City maintains most of the supplements from the Platinum Series DVD release in 1999 and adds a bunch more. The top menu offers a choice between the theatrical and director's cut versions. Under the theatrical cut main menu, you'll find the supplements from the earlier release: an audio commentary by Alex Proyas, writers Lem Dobbs and David Goyer, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, and production designer Patrick Tatopoulos; a second audio commentary by film critic Roger Ebert; a text feature drawing comparisons between Dark City and Fritz Lang's Metropolis; and a theatrical trailer. The theatrical cut menu also contains a second text-based feature, a review of the film by Neil Gaiman (Stardust).
The director's cut menu offers three expanded commentary tracks -- the first by Proyas, the second by Dobbs and Goyer, and third by Ebert. In each instance, elements of their original commentaries are merged with new material in order to create tracks appropriate to the new version of the film. There is also a text-based fact track that mostly highlights the differences between the two cuts of the film, though it does also offer a smattering of random anecdotes about the movie. Three featurettes -- "Introduction by Alex Proyas," "Memories of Shell Beach," and "Architecture of Dreams" -- form a lengthy and informative making-of documentary when you select the "Play All" option. Finally, there's a decent production gallery. Many of the photographs were taken by Sewell, who apparently annoyed the hell out of everyone on set with his constant snapping.
A second disc contains a digital copy of the movie (in standard definition) that can be downloaded to your computer.
If you've never seen Dark City, begin with the director's cut. The minor changes (especially the removal of the opening narration) benefit newbies the most.
If you're already a fan of this cult classic, the director's cut offers more of what you already love about the film without any sacrifice of content or pacing. The improved video and audio presentation will also be a revelation.
And now you know the truth.
Review content copyright © 2008 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* DTS HD 6.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director's Cut and Original Theatrical Cut of the Film
* Audio Commentary with Director Alex Proyas, Writers Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer, Director of Photography Dariusz Wolski, Production Designer Patrick Tatopoulos
* Audio Commentary by Film Critic Roger Ebert
* Expanded Audio Commentary by Alex Proyas
* Expanded Audio Commentary by Roger Ebert
* Expanded Audio Commentary by David S. Goyer and Lem Dobbs
* Director's Cut Fact Track
* "Introduction by Alex Proyas"
* "Memories of Shell Beach"
* "Architecture of Dreams"
* Production Gallery
* Comparisons to Fritz's Lang's Metropolis
* Neil Gaiman Review of Dark City
* Theatrical Trailer
* Digital Copy