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'Dark City': Outer Limits

By Rita Kempley
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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Powered by urban angstand just plain paranoia, "Dark City," with its persistent night, trance-like performances and mind-bending themes, suggests filmmaker Alex Proyas has been poking about in Doctor Caligari's cabinet as opposed to Detective Mulder's "X-Files."

But John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), this eye-poppingly inventive fantasy's protagonist, does share the same terrible knowledge as Mulder, Oliver Stone and folks with hand-written protest signs: A mysterious, all-powerful cabal is plotting against the people of Earth. Only nobody believes him.

In this stylish hybrid of futuristic thriller and film noir, a race of bald-headed extraterrestrials, known as the Strangers, are the culprits. These chalky white, cloak-clad beings may recall Uncle Festus after Jenny Craig, but they're refugees from a dying planet intent upon changing Earth and its people to meet their needs.

To that end, they have been conducting nightly experiments on the city's skylines as well as its citizens. Though they can stop time and alter matter by chattering their teeth in the presence of a giant head, they require the aid of the demented Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) in their efforts to isolate and understand such human qualities as heart and soul.

Every night at the stroke of 12, clocks stop while the Strangers think up new realities, and mad scientist Schreber alters the memories of various and sundry citizens. Most people wake up with no record of what came before, but Murdoch is different, an anomaly created by the constant tinkering.

When Murdoch comes to in a strange hotel with amnesia, a bleeding head wound and a dead woman in the bedroom, he becomes determined to recover his memories and thereby learn the truth. The Strangers, of course, are just as determined to stop Murdoch, who gradually discovers that he shares his enemies' supernatural powers.

The sycophantic Schreber plays a limping Igor to the Strangers' leader, Mr. Book (Ian Richardson), but he also takes an interest in Murdoch's quest. With occasional hints from the doctor, Murdoch manages to temporarily elude both the Strangers and the dogged Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt), who is undecided about Murdoch's role in arash of grisly murders.

Hurt adds a pinch of gravitas to this outlandish universe of aliens and crackpots, but the film is chiefly a showcase for Sewell, the gorgeous British actor who starred in "Carrington" and "Cold Comfort Farm." Obliged to go from lost soul to demigod, Sewell's performance is as fascinating as Proyas's mystical vision.

Once you've become a demigod, what's your first order of business? Let there be light!    

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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