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Dark City

New Line // R // July 29, 2008
List Price: $28.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Chris Neilson | posted July 31, 2008 | E-mail the Author
Dark City opened to mixed reviews and small audiences in 1998. Many critics regarded it as an attractive but empty mishmash of ideas and images lifted from better films, while some cinema goers were bored by the pacing, and confused by the eclectic vision of director Alex Proyas (The Crow). Nevertheless, Dark City earned a small, but devoted following, and was championed by popular movie reviewer Roger Ebert who named it his favorite film that year.

Though many critics had found the storyline underdeveloped and half-baked, fans found Dark City's archetypal characters and plot elements densely-layered and capable of supporting complex interpretations. Due in part to Ebert's enthusiastic support, New Line turned out, what was for that time, an impressive DVD release of Dark City just five months after the film opened theatrically.

Though cinema goers had largely forgotten Dark City by the time The Matrix was hitting screens the following spring, it continued to draw new fans through the well-regarded DVD. Thanks to this demonstrated fan base, in 2005 Proyas convinced New Line to release a director's cut of Dark City on DVD. Finally released on both DVD and Blu-ray on July 29, 2008, the director's cut expands the 100-minute theatrical runtime to 111 minutes. Many scenes have been lengthened by a shot or two adding a bit more flavor or slightly changing the tone, but one alteration really stands out.

At the insistence of the studio, the theatrical release began with a voiceover that explained the dark forces at work behind the scenes, and followed this up with a visually-engaging scene pulled from the film's middle to entice viewers to stick with it through what test audiences regarded as a slow and confusing first act. The director's cut eliminates the voiceover and returns the accompanying scene to its original place in the second act. The result is that the director's cut of Dark City begins with a much deeper mystery than the neatly packaged theatrical release did.

The basic plot of Dark City could have been ripped directly from a 1950 Hollywood b-list noir. A man (Rufus Sewell) wakes in a fleabag hotel. He can't recall who he is, or how he got there. The phone rings. On the other end of line is a doctor (Kiefer Sutherland) telling him to scram because trouble is on its way to his room. Just then, the protagonist sees a mutilated hooker on the floor. He beats feet out of the room and escapes down the stairs just as the elevator opens at the far end of the hall.

Once free from the scene of the crime, our protagonist tries to solve the mystery of who he is, whether he's a killer, and if not, who's trying to frame him and why. Along the way, he's doggedly pursued by a fastidious detective (William Hurt), and protected by a beautiful dame (Jennifer Connelly) who claims to be his wife. As film noir goes, so far so good, but it's here that Dark City veers off in decidedly sci-fi directions. Where it leads is always visually engaging, though sometimes less than intellectually satisfying, with the plot disappointingly resolving itself through a clich├ęd special-effects battle in the third act.

There's a major plot point in the film that explains why everybody seems a little uncertain of themselves, and to a degree this explains the acting in Dark City, but not completely. William Hurt turns in an adequate performance, with progressively poorer performances coming from Jennifer Connelly, Rufus Sewell, and god-awful Kiefer Sutherland.

No matter what one thinks of Dark City's substance, it's impossible not to be impressed by its style. Dark City draws heavily on film noir, German Expressionism (Fritz Lang's M and Metropolis especially, but also Nosferatu, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), dystopian sci-fi films Brazil and City of Lost Children, and Proyas' prior film The Crow. These influences are realized in an impressively lavish set and costume design that Proyas uses to wonderful effect.

Though the plot mostly works, all conflicts between style and plot are decided in favor of style. As Proyas acknowledges in the director's commentary when explaining why buildings, fixtures, tables, and even dishes of hot food can be materialized out of nothingness, but teddy bears have to be manufactured in an underground assembly line, sometimes it just looks cooler that way.

The Presentation
This dual-layered, vc-1 encoded, 1080p Blu-ray release preserves the film's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The video image is far more detailed than on the 1998 release, the sepia coloration of the sets and costumes are breathtaking rendered, and the film has been notably brightened without perceptibly distorting the contrast or otherwise overexposing the image. Though cinematographer Dariusz Wolski appears to have chosen an especially soft focus for faces that leaves them looking less than sharply detailed even at 1080p, the night sky and Emma's nightclub dress are but two instances where the new Blu-ray image reveals a level of detail and depth of color far beyond that of the old DVD.

The zealotry of the post-production staff at New Line is going to cause some fans no end of consternation. Edge enhancement and the application of digital noise reduction are apparent. While the edge enhancement demonstrably mars the image, the digital noise reduction merely changes it. Nearly all of the film grain has been digitally removed, leaving the image source looking more like HD video than film. Though removing the grain doesn't make Dark City look objectively worse, it's a bastardization of the film that simply will not sit well with many viewers. Though I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's equivalent to colorizing a black and white film, it's certainly a practice that should not be encouraged.

Both cuts of Dark City include newly engineered HD-DTS Master Audio 7.1 mixes. The soundscape is immersive, with far more accurate directionality, and greater audio range and intensity especially on the low end, than the 1998 5.1 release. While generally very good, individual sounds are not as distinct as they could be from the general din, and dialogue often especially suffers.

Subtitles are available in English for the hearing impaired and Spanish.

Well befitting its emerging status as a cult film, this Blu-ray release of Dark City includes a generous bevy of extras, including five commentary tracks. The two commentary tracks included on the 1998 DVD release have been ported over. These consist of a filmmakers' commentary that cuts together separately recorded observations by director Alex Proyas, co-writers Lem Dobbs and David Goyer, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, and production designer Patrick Tatopoulos, and a critic's commentary provided by Roger Ebert.

The three newly-available commentary tracks accompanying the director's cut are a mix of older and newer material. The first track, a director's commentary by Proyas is wholly new, while the writers' commentary provided by Dobbs and Goyer consists solely of material recorded for the 1998 DVD release, though much of it was previously unavailable. The commentary provided by Roger Ebert is a mix of material available on the prior commentary and newer material recorded in 2005 specifically for the director's cut.

The two commentaries provide by Roger Ebert are thoroughly entertaining, though because much of the material is identical, playing them back-to-back is not recommended. The commentaries by the filmmakers are a mixed bag. The original filmmakers commentary which crosscuts observations from the director, writers, cinematographer, and production designer is informative and largely free of dead time, while the two newer commentaries both suffer from long periods of silence. Irritatingly or refreshingly depending on your perspective, Dobbs and Goyer provide almost as many comments to undermine the film as to champion it. Proyas in the new director's commentary acknowledges some problems with the film but largely sounds triumphantly vindicated.

An Introduction by Alex Proyas and Roger Ebert (SD, 5 min.) filmed separately, probably both in 2005, provides the two with an opportunity to briefly explain the decision to recut the film and to identify the major changes. Everything said here is explained in more detail in their respective new commentary tracks.

Also included are two making-of documentaries recorded in 1998 which were not included on the original DVD release: Memories of Shell Beach (SD, 43 min.), and Architecture of Dreams (SD, 34 min.). Collectively, these on-set documentaries address the crafting of the script, casting, set design, costuming, and special effects.

Other features rounding out the extras include the theatrical trailer (SD, 2 min.), a Production gallery of 80 stills, a brief text by fantasy writer Neil Gaiman praising Dark City, and a longer text likening Dark City to Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) which includes excerpts from critical pans of Metropolis by sci-fi writer H.G. Wells and Weekly Variety. And for the truly hardcore fans not sated by the five commentary tracks, a director's cut fact track that provides pop-ups during the director's cut to briefly note changes and to offer trivia like the biblical significance of a hotel room number or the origin's of Sutherland's character's name.

Finally, there's a complete standard-definition digital copy of the director's cut included on a second disc for those viewers looking to watch the film on a Windows-friendly media player.

Final Thoughts:
Dark City is a cut above the average sci-fi flick. Though not matching the headiness of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey or Tarkovsky's Solaris or Stalker, Dark City is a stylish middlebrow sci-fi film as densely packed with cinematic references as any Tarantino flick, yet still capable of entertaining a broad audience.

With two cuts of the film, five commentary tracks, and lots of other extras, this release has plenty of material to explore. Though film aficionados will be disappointed with how New Line has overworked the image with ugly edge enhancement and unnecessary digital noise reduction that scrubs the image free of its original grain, more casual viewers will only notice the significantly enhanced video and audio.

Highly Recommended.

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Highly Recommended

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