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'Dark City': Noir That Lights Up the Night

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 27, 1998


Dark City Kiefer Sutherland plays demented Dr. Schreber in "Dark City." (New Line)

Alex Proyas
Rufus Sewell;
Kiefer Sutherland;
Jennifer Connelly;
Richard O'Brien;
Ian Richardson;
William Hurt
Running Time:
1 hour, 43 minutes
Under 17 restricted

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The alien puppet-masters in "Dark City" have a problem: It's not that they're tall, ghoulish desiccated goblins with the chalky complexions of corpses, and it's not that they're dying as a race, but something far worse they've seen too many old movies.

The film, from the Alex Proyas who made his mark in the hyper-violent, hyper-stylized "The Crow," is set in a zone of visual overload so dense it'll probably cost you some IQ points. Proyas must have seen every film noir ever made at least twice, from "M" to "L.A. Confidential," with stops in between for everything from "The Big Heat" to "Blade Runner," and it shows. In some ways, it's less a movie than a visual archive, a catalogue of the shadows, banisters, prisonlike bars and chiaroscuro that are the film noir style. It hasn't been directed so much as art-directed.

But that's not bad, that's good, as the film eventually turns into something rare and wondrous (or annoying, depending on how far you can go with this sort of thing): It's a solemn hoot. It's like Edvard Munch's "The Scream" set to show tunes, or Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" on Quaaludes. It's nightmare sci-fi film noir, dazzlingly complex on the surface, rather simple underneath (and there's not very much underneath), but always candy for the eyes.

A fellow named John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up one night at midnight in the bathtub. He has no idea who he is or why he's there or what that broken hypodermic needle is doing on the floor. He dresses, discovers a mutilated prostitute in the next room, finds himself in a fleabag of a hotel where $4 million worth of art direction and cinematography has created a haze of sleaze so intense it could hang in the Hirshhorn, and begins to flee through the streets. He is being pursued by "strangers" those desiccated corpse look-alikes with their bad dental work and their visual connection to German expressionism.

Meanwhile a lanky detective named Bumstead (William Hurt, yeomanlike) in a fedora with a brim elegantly engineered to replicate the delicate curvilinear look of art moderne, inherits the case of the dead prostitute, which turns out to be one in a serial. He tracks the room's renter it's John Murdoch and begins to look for him, meeting his beautiful wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly). She's a warbler or a chanteuse or a songbird or whatever (Ida Lupino or Gene Tierney played the part in the originals) who fronts a jazz band and wails her bluesy siren through the deep black night. They're hunting for Murdoch, too. So it's a double chase with a mystery element set in the unopened part of Disney World called Crazyland.

The big wrinkle arrives early enough: At midnight, this dream city stops dreaming and goes comatose. Everybody snoozes except for the weirdly excepted John. At that point, the strangers come out en masse and rearrange the architecture and the lighting. They add a little more Edward Hopper over here, take away some Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan over there. They do a Reginald Marsh thing at 15th Street, and at Main and First they throw up some Mies van der Rohe and, for the hell of it, some late-Reich Albert Speer. They mix and match people, too, using the hypodermic to withdraw liquefied memory and inject it into new skulls. So in one of the movie's cleverest throwaway scenes you might sink into your cabbage soup at midnight a broken working man in a cold-water flat and awaken from your pate de fois gras at 12:00:00:0000001 a.m. the master of a mansion. Why? You won't read it here, chum. That's the whole movie.

I can think of at least three "Twilight Zones" that employed some variation of the same gimmick: A palpable reality is revealed, in the last sequence, to be built on false assumptions. (Remember the episode in which the three weird guys and dames in the huge space, assailed by a mighty bell, turned out to be dolls in a Salvation Army drum? It's that sort of thing.) Yet as Simple-Simon-met-a-pieman as it is, "Dark City" isn't on its way to the fair, it is the fair. If you don't fall in love with it, you've probably never fallen in love with a movie, and never will.    

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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