In order to attain true movie-geek supremacy, you must find that one failed film which only you can love—and then defend it to the death. But it isn't easy. Every psychotronic-DVD collector and his disappointed mother knows that The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies is an undeniable American classic, that Battle Royale is a parable for our times, and that Showgirls is no doubt Paul Verhoeven's one true masterpiece. These days, you really have to dig deep to find a disdained movie to champion because they're all being endorsed already by other movie-nerds.
I'll have to take Dark City off my underrated-movies list. (Still occupying the number one slot: David Lynch's Dune. If only De Laurentiis would pay for a new edit and a new score to replace—God help us—Toto's, it could be a film for the ages, I'm tellin' ya!) With a new director's cut on DVD and Blu-ray, Dark City's narrative flaws have been largely patched up, freeing viewers (even non-geeks) to immerse themselves in one of the most visually lush science-fiction noirs ever made and then forgotten.
Back in 1998, when Dark City had its brief theatrical run, it got tagged by critics as being all style, no substance. Director Alex Proyas could obviously make things look cool—learned, no doubt, from his years directing (sniff) music videos—but he didn't seem able to construct a cohesive story. Or could he?
Rufus Sewell stars as John Murdoch, a man who suddenly doesn't have any memories–especially not of killing the prostitute who's been carved up in the apartment that he's standing naked in. Why? This is the question that takes him through the subterranean levels of a perpetually dark metropolis. With William Hurt's Detective Bumstead hot on his heels, he begins to learn that everything in this strange city he lives in is fabricated, that reality is not necessarily real, that something's controlling everyone's lives—or it could be that he's just nuts.
Intriguing, yes? However, the big problem with Dark City wasn't that its storyline was too bizarre to follow, it's that Proyas—prodded by his producers—gave everything away in the film's first minute with a voiceover by Kiefer Sutherland's diabolical Dr. Schreber. (Ironic aside: This duplicates the studio mucking of Blade Runner, that ultimate science fiction noir which also has its own recent director's cut and which is one of Dark City's main stylistic influences.) There was no mystery for viewers to uncover and no clues to search for, rendering all those beautiful sets empty of discovery. As I wrote in my original review, "It's as if Proyas—or New Line Cinema—was so afraid of puzzling audiences that he jumped ahead to all the answers before properly asking the questions... Somewhere, there must be one hell of a director's cut, and we can only hope that it'll appear on a video store shelf someday soon."
Well, that day has finally arrived. And while Proyas' new cut is not radically different from the theatrical release, it reinstates Dark City's sense of mystery, making for a more satisfying experience that lingers in the mind. The slapdash pacing and often choppy editing have been smoothed out, allowing characters more time to develop and giving the story a chance to coelesce over the course of the film. Unlike other bloated director's cuts, this new version adds only 11 minutes to the original's 100-minute run-time, so we don't overstay our welcome. And some of the digital effects have been sharpened up, for the better.
Do these changes balance out the style vs. substance equation? That depends on what you personally get out of watching movies. Some may find Dark City's themes of identity (do memories make us who we are?) a bit obvious and its action finale (telekinesis showdown!) not inventive enough. And the overall plot is something you might have seen before on an old episode of Star Trek. But for those who go to the movies seeking to experience waking dreams in exotic worlds, Dark City is mesmerizing. Proyas (who went on to make I, Robot) creates a fascinating landscape of retro-futurism, a city imagined from the memories of other cinematic metropolises—it's both gritty and unreal, and it's a place you want to explore.
It's worth noting that a year later, another movie with an almost identical storyline and equally impressive visuals was released and became a smash hit. The difference might be that The Matrix is first and foremost an action movie while Dark City is primarily a mood piece, which is not typically big box-office material. But perhaps now, with its polished director's cut and with a bigger market for thought-provoking science fiction films, Dark City will find the audience it originally deserved.