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Alex Proyas' Dark City is an ambitious, eclectic fantasy that was unfortunately overlooked in the stampede to praise the next year's The Matrix, a somewhat similar story of a Sci-Fi universe generated by mental illusion. The Australia-produced film's reputation has grown over the years, enough to inspire New Line to allow its director to restore his original Director's Cut. This new Blu-ray disc contains both the original theatrical release and Proyas' longer version, before the studio made him cut it down and add an annoying opening voiceover. The result is a much-improved movie. Dark City was a quirky anomaly when new but still seems perfectly in step for today's fantasy thriller audience.
Alfred Hitchcock said that some filmmakers are "complicators" and some are "simplifiers". Alex Proyas is a "complicator" but not necessarily in a bad sense. Dark City is one of the first Sci-Fi spectaculars to make liberal use of C.G.I. effects to create an entire fantastic world. Like a demented Sim City game gone mad, weird overseers shut down the city every night at midnight. They then use their mental powers to move buildings, "grow" new ones and give selected citizens new identities and living situations. Hitchcock might have criticized Proyas' filmic clutter, but I think he'd be fascinated by the film's paranoid vision of a reality being constantly tweaked and tuned by humorless super-beings.
The filmic clutter I refer to is Dark City's many levels of ideas adapted from previous Sci Fi films and literature. The basic amnesia story is a Noir turnip similar to Joe Mankiewicz's old Somewhere In the Night, but the trappings bring in motifs from as far back as Metropolis. Readers of Philip K. Dick (UBIK, for starters) will find familiar ground in the construction of a bizarre virtual world that can be altered by the thoughts of the super-minds that maintain it. The visuals compress expressionist clocks, nocturnal Noir cityscapes and David Lynchian nightclubs into a stew that may at times seem too familiar, at least to viewers familiar with The Truman Show and Pleasantville.
Rufus Sewell makes a solid Noir hero. His John Murdoch broods but doesn't collapse into despair. William Hurt is typically precise; he and Jennifer Connelly give the film much of its heart. Kiefer Sutherland is less mannered than usual, playing an eccentric scientist used by the Dark Men to implant false memories by direct injections to the brain. Ian Richardson, Richard O'Brien (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and Bruce Spence (The Road Warrior) are leading Dark Men, not-so-imaginatively costumed like characters from Lynch's Dune. They creep slowly in floor length leather coats, and have names like Mr. Hand, Mr. Book and Mr. Wall.
Director Proyas (The Crow) makes excellent use of advanced CGI work, most of which still holds up. 1 He shows enough taste not to allow dazzling visuals take over completely; although constantly augmented with computer artwork, the dark city feels like a real place, albeit one where magic doors appear at will and a giant Metropolis- like clock stops time every night at the stroke of midnight.
The Director's cut adds detail and buffers the pace just enough to allow Dark City to breathe a bit. Two or three added scenes and extended character interchanges enhance our involvement and produce a much more satisfying experience. Some of the changes improve the tone considerably. Jennifer Connelly now sings The Night Has a Thousand Eyes for herself in the cabaret. She's not as professional as the replacement dubbed onto the theatrical copy, but her singing feels more up close and personal.
Alex Proyas' overall concept eventually distills down to the message that "reality is what we make it". The number of throwaway references is pretty high. The true form of the Dark Men are spindly, transparent spider-things that remain largely unexplained: they're a bit like Arthur Clarke's Overlords in Childhood's End. But Alex Proyas turns the hand-me-down ideas into interesting scenes. Dark City is not about slo-mo gunfights or blowing things up, and Proyas is too mature to bore us with gratuitous nihilism, the first refuge of fantasists with nothing to say. His ending even emulates the finish of the old Film Blanc, Here Comes Mr. Jordan.
New Line Home Entertainment's Blu-ray of Dark City - Director's Cut continues that label's habit of packing discs with extravagant extras into the new format. Both the theatrical and director's cut are present, along with two major documentaries, an extended introduction by Alex Proyas and several commentary tracks from many of the film's creative contributors. Critic Roger Ebert's enthusiastic commentary has been retained from an earlier release, and he's as entertaining and insightful as ever. The expected text essays, trailers and galleries of art and stills are here as well. I particularly liked a "Director's Cut Fact Track", a trivia track that also informs the viewer of changes made from the original cut.
The Blu-ray transfer is smooth, sharp and beautiful. It brings out the careful textures in the CGI artwork and shows us that the Director's Cut is more than a matter of tossing in a few cut scenes ... it's a measurably improved entertainment experience.
Subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. For the Director's Cut, we're told that Proyas re-composited many effects, especially the distortion that occurs when John uses his mental stare to move objects and strike people down.
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