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A Paternity Leave Review of "Dark City" (1998)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Dark City is one of my go-to classics.  It's possible that I've watched it more often than any other movie, but even if I haven't, I've at least seen it enough to have the movie practically memorized beat for beat.  Not all of the effects have aged gracefully in the last 16 years and I'm not sure if I would call it my all-time favorite film, but whatever flaws it has are more than made up for by its story, acting, and direction.  It remains one of the greatest films I've ever seen.

My Rating: 5 / 5

The Part Where I Warn About the Bad Opening Scene

Most likely this is old news for you, but... if you haven't seen the movie yet and you choose to watch the theatrical version, make sure you mute your TV for the first, oh, 60 seconds or so.

For some reason, the studio went back into the movie after it was complete and decided to add in this painful introductory monologue.  Through voice-over narration, a character basically just explains the entire plot before anything happens.  But then he never narrates the movie again.  So... not only is it a spoiler, but it's not even a thematically cohesive spoiler.

It's kind of like if Return of the Jedi opened with Darth Vader looking at the camera and saying, "I used to be a bad guy, but I'm going to redeem myself by killing the Emperor.  Also, the rebels are going to blow up the Death Star again."  And then the movie cut straight to Jabba's palace.  No text crawl, no anthem, just an asshole telling you things like you're a goddamn idiot.


The Part Where I Describe the Plot (As If You Haven't Seen It)

Dark City is the kind of movie that works best if you figure it out on your own.  It holds up to multiple viewings, but there's nothing like that first time you see it and there's just one crazy scene happening after another.  Almost every ten minutes there's some new spectacle or turn.  You know how some critics will call a movie a "roller-coaster ride" or something, and you always feel like they're being hacky?  Well, this is one of the few movies I've ever seen that deserves to be called a "roller-coaster."

Naturally, that makes it kind of hard to describe the plot because anything I say will give away some of the turns.  But let's try, anyway.

The film opens with John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) waking up in a bathtub in a dingy, poorly-lit bathroom.  He has no memory of where or who he is.  There's a bizarre device laying on the floor near the tub, and when he wanders out the door and into a strange bedroom, he gets a strange phone call from Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), a mysterious man who tells him that he has to leave immediately.  Schreber tells John that he was part of "an experiment" and there are people after him, but gives no other detail.

Then John turns and notices that there's a dead woman in the room.  Understandably, he panics.  The phone call ends abruptly and John goes on the run.  Soon he realizes that he's suspected of murdering prostitutes all throughout the city, and there's nowhere he can turn for help.

And then... a bunch of other interesting stuff happens.

This is where I can't describe too much more without giving away any plot twists.  The rest of the movie is a combination of art experiment, procedural thriller, abstract horror, and reality-bending science fiction.  It's a relentless barrage of information and character turns that combines many genres into a solid and wonderful film.

The Part Where I Talk About Rapid Editing

Speaking of relentless....

If you watch this movie and you enjoy it, I recommend that you take the time to seek out and listen to Roger Ebert's commentary track on the film.  He does a great job of dissecting the film on a technical and historical level and provides some amazing information.  One key item that I never actually noticed until Ebert pointed it out is the pace of the film's editing.

In some ways, Dark City is kind of like the poster child for the hyperactive, post-millennial style of manic film direction. There's hundreds of cuts in every scene.  The camera never seems to linger on a shot for more than a few seconds and even simple conversations seem to be edited like a music video.

The reason I mention this is because it's an approach to filmmaking that I would normally complain about... but it actually works pretty well here.  Dark City is a frenetic movie about a guy in a state of panic who is suddenly and horribly pulled into a bizarre and grim world.  There's a million different things going on that are tugging him in different directions.  The editing draws you into that state of mind.

Tellingly, when things eventually calm down, the editing does, too.  The post-climactic scenes take on a chill, steady approach, with far fewer cuts.

It's an impressive feat when you consider that this same approach to editing is distracting when implemented in other movies.  It's a rare breed of film that can be subtly hyperactive.

The Part Where I Write About Basing Stories on Dreams

I got a little bit obsessed about this movie when I was in high school (more on that in a bit), so there were a couple of years where I frantically scoured the Internet for any piece of information I could possibly find.  In the process I came across a couple of the earlier screenplay drafts.

Dark City is not the first movie whose screenplay I had read - that honor, strangely enough, belongs to Beavis & Butthead Do America, which is probably not the most prestigious of beginnings.  It is also not my first introduction to the format of screenplays, which I have been attempting to write ever since I was twelve years old.  (Arbitrary side note: You know how I know that movie Thirteen is bullshit?  Because I wrote a couple of screenplays when I was thirteen.  That movie would need to have like an entire hour of extraneous scenes to even come close to a real teenager's work.)

Dark City is, however, the first screenplay that made me stop to consider the process of crafting and reshaping a story into something better.  And when you think about what actually goes into storytelling, you realize that this really is the bulk of the work.  Maybe seventy percent or more of your time as a writer is just revising.

The first draft of Dark City was based on a dream that the director (Alex Proyas) had.  It's both good and bad; on the one hand, it has this great, ethereal, nightmarish quality to it where horrible things happen for seemingly no reason and you're never sure where it'll go next.  On the other hand, things happen for seemingly no reason and it doesn't really feel like a satisfying story.

The initial draft featured some elements that would have made for incredible and disturbing visuals.  There was a deadly robot creature, torture suits that peeled their victims' skin off, and a shitload of bugs.  In my head, I can't help but feel like this would have made an amazing horror movie.  The reality, though, is that translating the mood or tone of a concept from page to screen is probably one of the hardest things anybody can do, so the end result would probably not have been as good as the movie we have now.

One of the problems with basing a story on a dream is that dreams are basically just distilled mood.  There aren't really solid plot points or characters or arcs or anything that you actually need in order to make sense.  You just have a condensed feeling of some sort.  That's why it's always hard to describe a dream to somebody else.  "You were there, but it wasn't really you, but it was, you know? And you weren't really trying to kill me, but then again, you kinda were?"

Dreams can be so inspiring because the mood is so powerful, but beyond that intense sensation, there really isn't a story to tell.  Think about the number of times you tried to describe a dream to somebody and you could have just saved your time by saying, "I felt really sad" or "I felt really scared."

So it is with the first draft of the script.  There were some great moments that inspired a sense of dread and foreboding, but not much else was memorable.  Later revisions drew on those moments for an aesthetic - which did eventually become part of the final film - but rather than using those images as plot points, the new scripts built a coherent story around them.  The end result is a movie that is still every bit as tonally evocative as a dream, but which has a functional and gripping plot.

Realizing that you're allowed to do that made me a better writer.  (Whether or not I'm yet a good writer is still to be determined.)  Before I read the drafts of this screenplay, I think I had the idea that a story began with a core that you just repainted a bunch of times until you finally liked it, and if you didn't like the core, then you had to throw the whole thing out.  It wasn't until I really stopped to think about how this screenplay evolved from a powerful dream to a powerful story that I realized that a new draft can pay homage and respect to its roots without being chained by them.

The Part Where I Look Back Nostalgically at Being a Gloomy Teenager

You might notice that Dark City is appropriately dark.  As much as I love the writing, direction, acting, visuals, music, and effects, I'm sad to say that the lighting might be one of the main reasons why I first got hooked on this movie.

See, I was maybe fifteen or sixteen when I first saw this movie, and at that point in my life I was going through the Dark Phase that all teenagers flirt with.  Some of us just dance with it once or twice and hold hands, some of us go full-on sexual, some of us have a one night stand and never call it again, and some of us make a lifelong commitment and never look back, but we've all engaged with the Dark Phase at one point or another.

At the time, I certainly wasn't thinking about what Dark City had to say about memories or relationships or humanity.  I was drawn in by the fact that was simply a dark movie.

My Dark Phase was mercifully brief in the grand scheme of things, but I'm glad that it at least took me to see this film.  There are folks out there who think back on being a teenager and groan with embarrassment at the music they listened to or the way they dressed or how hard they laughed at Little Nicky, and to those people, memories must be more bittersweet.

I can't say I don't have embarrassing memories, but I can say I have Dark City.  It's one of the best discoveries I made as a kid that I'm still happy to revisit.