Welcome back to another Friday Nightmare Reviews, wherein I tell you what you could be watching instead of scrolling through Netflix trying to remember that one thing you told yourself about earlier in the week and totally forgot to write down but it sorta sounded good? Maybe? One of my least favorite questions in the entire world is “what’s your favorite movie” because, much like many people, when set in a position to talk about anything that I could call a favorite anything, in that moment, I cannot remember a damn thing I’ve ever seen. I might be able to pull to mind the last thing I’ve seen but I would hardly call that the best movie in my collection or even the one I would go to first among all the ones I’ve seen. Considering that I’ve got a pretty damn good memory too, this is probably even worse for people who have difficulty remembering what they had for breakfast in the morning. But to be fair, memory is a tricksy thing at the best of times anyway. Our brains are weird about what they filter out as useless information, discarding little things like the incident first thing in the morning when someone on the bus was rude and where you last set your keys down with equally infuriating abandon. It is impossible to remember everything but what would happen if you never remembered anything for more than a day? Or if someone other than your own brain was claiming responsibility for those memories?
These are some of the key questions that are posed by this week’s film, the very stylish futuristic 1998 film noir, Dark City. If that dark, slick visual aesthetic is ringing some bells, it might be the familiar touch of director Alex Proyas, most notable for the gorgeous but tragic film that was his feature debut from four years earlier, The Crow. I usually wait to wax enthusiastic about the visuals and the cinematography but seriously, this film is a lot of fun to look at as it takes all the mystery and the charm of those old, classic film noir tales and mixes them with a very dark but almost steamwork seeming sci-fi world. It’s a mash up of the highest order and it probably shouldn’t work but it totally does. There are some ways that this does kind of get in the way of the plot but, as the kidlets say, I’m not mad at it because of the way it was handled and the moody, beautifully dark aspects of the story. And with that established, let’s get to that plot.
Dark City is the tale of a man who is name John Murdoch, played by Rupert Sewell. Maybe? He doesn’t actually know who he is and doesn’t find out his own name for like another fifteen minutes or so. That would usually be a pretty big deal to the audience but both John and the rest of us are very understandably distracted by the fact that there is a naked dead woman carved up on the floor of the hotel room that John woke up in. While most of us would agree that finding a dead body kind of shoots to the top of our concerns list, for John, this has the added stress of him not remembering who he is, where he came from, why he’s in a hotel room and, most importantly, if he happened to murder someone in the past few hours. Because even someone with amnesia is able to piece together that being found in a room with a dead woman and no story as to how they got there is usually a bad look, John books it out of there to figure just who the hell he is anyway. And lucky for him, he also manages to get out just as three pale, hairless figures dressed all in black coats and hats arrive at the scene. Detectives they are not, as they are less concerned about the why of the dead body so much as where that scamp that had been with her had run off to. These figures, known in the film as The Strangers, give chase but leave the actual detective work to William Hurt’s character, Inspector Frank Bumstead.
So far, all of this, Strangers notwithstanding, is pretty by the numbers for a murder mystery, even if it’s a really aesthetically pleasing one. John continues his quest to figure out what the hell is going on and, wouldn’t luck have it, he’s actually married to the gorgeous Emma, a lounge singer played by Jennifer Connelly. He knows he didn’t kill anyone, even going so far as to test himself and realizing that he has no desire to hurt anyone around him. Still, he is doubtful that the detective will believe him and that is hardly why the Strangers are chasing after him, though that in and of itself is a mystery. Where this one really gets into weirder territory, is the fact that John finds that everyone is having a bit of a hard time remembering certain things. They all know who they are, mostly, but they aren’t really that great with the finer details. Like how to get to anywhere else except the city they live in. You see, he supposedly grew up in a coastal town called Shell Beach but no one knows how to get there, though everyone knows about it. Then, in a communal bout of narcolepsy, at the stroke of midnight, everyone falls asleep and the building rearrange themselves and the Strangers get to work changing certain people from different jobs and different positions of wealth or poverty. Everyone but John, whom they are a little pissed off with for learning they exist. From here, things go even more bat shit insane and the reality of the situation these people exist in starts to unfold as John figures out what he actually is and where he fits in this dark world that never see the sun. Unluckily for him, The Strangers decide to hunt him by volunteering one of their own to take over his missing memories, including all of the knowledge he lacks about Emma.
This film has a lot going on and honestly, I think it would not have worked without the cast. The performances by especially Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland and Richard O’Brien of Rocky Horror fame are all pretty fantastic, especially given that they are forced to do a lot of their discovery through the action rather than through dialogue. In fact, most the dialogue in this film is given to William Hurt who does a pretty decent job of the playing the classic inspector from a film noir. That said, if there’s anything that might be improved, it’s giving both Hurt and Connelly more to do. They hover in the periphery for most of the film, sometimes more important to the main action than others but they don’t get to participate much in their own stories. That said, both actors make the most of their roles and while neither of them are entirely necessary for the story, I think the plot would be a lot flimsier without them. I think if we got more of both their characters and Sutherland’s Dr. Shreiber, this film would be longer but all the better for it. No one isn’t doing a great job in this film though so I am honestly happy with what we get.
All of this is wrapping to something we kind of got to right at the beginning. This is a very very pretty movie. Proyas was known for his work on music videos prior to directing The Crow and even that film had that flashy element to it that made it visually stunning. The thing is that whereas that story was very tightly focused on the revenge element with the love story that was central to everything, this story does not have that. John loves Emma, he thinks. This is something that gets addressed at the end of the story but as I said before, Emma doesn’t get much to do or show us any of her own values or reasons why she is special to John. Because no one is really who they think they are, it’s a hard sell on that point because really, other than being very beautiful, it’s hard to see this as a viable love story beyond that. Again, this does get a kind of remedy at the end and it’s not unsatisfying so it’s not a deal breaker but it is one of the weaker elements of the plot. Another less than stellar element was the mystery component to the plot. It gets wrapped up but it’s not really even that satisfying, to be honest. It gets kind of overshadowed by the bigger reveal of who and what the Strangers are which is understandable but it still is a bit of a nitpick that I would have liked to see resolved in a better way.
All of this isn’t really a big fat no on whether you should watch this film, though. I can’t stress enough that this is an interesting story and one of its major flaws is also why it has rewatch value. One of the reasons that it doesn’t give Connelly much to do with her role or really spend too much time with Frank’s investigation is because it really tried to cram about three or four stories into a movie that clocks out at about an hour and a half. Normally, this would be where most filmmakers would rub their hands together and start getting that sequel baiting look in their eyes but, for one, this was back in 1998. It wasn’t like sequels didn’t exist back then but the film industry didn’t tend to whore out every last drop of an intellectual property and squeeze it into a major motion picture at the slightest sign of being able to stretch it to a decent run time. Besides that, this film really wouldn’t have made a good trilogy or even sequel because the overarching story was fairly self contained in this one film. I would have loved if the film was longer and able to really flesh out all the ideas that it tried to tackle but even then, it didn’t really botch any of them. There is plenty to see, plenty to pay attention to and a plethora of details that are waiting to be seen again, sometimes in a new light after you know what’s going on. That alone is worth watching it at least twice. And that’s not even getting into the visuals.
I know I already gushed about this but I think it’s worthy of talking about on its own. If you were a fan of The Crow, you already know that kind of moody, darkness that Proyas captured so flawlessly there but there was something distinctively gothic about it. The beautiful churchyards and the kind of decay of the streets and the use of all those muted colors amid the rainy concrete, it really evoked a certain kind of feeling of almost like a cemetery. This has a much more steampunk-esque feel to it, well before steampunk was really much of a thing if it was at all. The buildings, however, are all much more grounded in a kind of art deco style with the clothing heavily inspired by the 1940s films. It’s what you get when you trainwreck Metropolis into a film noir and make it more ominously dark and moody like a lot of films were in the 90s. And visually, the attention to all these details makes Dark City a beautifully haunting experience that makes it all too easy to forgive the little details that the plot doesn’t quite cover.
Obviously, I am highly recommending this film. It’s not much in terms of horror but I still think it can get some chills and the set up for the murder mystery aspect isn’t bad by any stretch. The Strangers are creepy as fuck and reveal of the city is pretty fantastic when you get there. The story, for all its flaws, is still really engaging and it’s filled with little twists that are fun to figure out, even the second time around. If you’re looking for a good, moody sci-fi that skirts the line of the horror genre, I very much suggest that you check this one out.
And that does it for another Friday Nightmare Review. In these times where a lot of people are stuck inside, you are welcome to browse my collection of films, horrible, weird or just underrated, and check out the free updates of my story Young Bucks, the current tale under the Hello Dolly series that is going on my website here. If waiting is not your strong suit, you can also throw a dollar or two at me a month through Patreon to get early access to everything here as well as the Sinister Reader book reviews and including some extras that I have been throwing in. And if not, I am happy to have new and old readers returning as they can. Until next time, may you remember where your car keys are, may you see the daylight again and may all your night times be filled with only the best memories.