1998 was a particularly dire year for blockbusters. Year by year, since roughly the mid-1980s, as this particular strand of mainstream cinema became dumb and dumber (one film was even given that title), such inanities popped up in the summer of 1998 as Armageddon (or the similar but equally tiresome Deep Impact), Deep Rising, Lost In Space, The Postman, The Relic, the godawful Godzilla, the much derided film version of TV's The Avengers (which I didn't think was actually all that bad), and the most inexplicably successful of the lot: Titanic.
But among all the inane dross, came this unexpected gem*, full of action of its own too, but with at least something approaching intelligence in the making.
The summer of 1998 was also, for a brief experimental period, a time when the British Film Institute introduced such welcome innovations as "National Cinema Day" (which began in 1996 during the cinema's centenary), where patrons could see a film in any cinema in the UK for only £1. As a result of the popularity of the event, Dark City was sold out at the Odeon Colchester, so I trekked out a little further afield a few weeks later, to Clacton-on-Sea instead.
The "Flicks" in Clacton as it is now known - formerly under the name Coronet Century among a few others - is one of a dying breed of old fashioned community cinemas that clings tantalisingly to its original 1930s architecture. Coincidentally, this also perfectly suited the retro atmosphere of Dark City, a 1940s-style film noir world clearly inspired by the paintings of Ed Hopper, and being the first of many pleasant surprises I was to encounter.
Walking into the cinema therefore, was like walking into another world - like ours Jim, but not quite as we know it (Dark World was indeed one of the working titles.)
Few films have such an unusual beginning as this one. Knowing it to be some sort of mixture of film noir and science fiction (two favourite genres of mine), it was another pleasant surprise to see the screen open with an expanse of stars in the night sky - something I've always been a sucker for ever since Star Wars. The camera then pans down from the stars, to the city, to which a sinister voice (Kiefer Sutherland) explains the set-up:
"First, there was darkness. Then came 'the Strangers'..."
Other fans of the film (and indeed the director, the visionary Alex Proyas) have welcomed the removal of this prologue from the Collectors' Edition DVD, but I find it sets the scene nicely and gives audiences a jolt as well as a sense of anticipation of what is to come (without giving away too many of the further twists in the tale), and rarely lets up from then on.
The first person we see is the Prologue himself, Dr. Daniel Paul Schreber, in one of Kiefer Sutherland's creepiest and, I think, most rewarding performances for the cinema - not long before he was about to become a hot property in the TV series 24 . His character here resembles something close to Peter Lorre in the Expressionist German thrillers of the 20s and 30s - of which Dark City is a homage - to Metropolis in particular. Schreber looks at his watch, which ticks round to midnight - at which point unexpectedly, absolutely everything and everyone in the city - apart from "the good doctor" - stops and falls asleep.
Seconds after the entire metropolis has nodded off, the title emerges on screen to a backdrop of encircling spirals (a recurring motif throughout the film), and the camera looms toward a single high rise bathroom window, looking like it could easily be through one of the side doors of the Coronet Cinema.
The occupant of the bathroom is one "John Murdoch" (Rufus Sewell) - a name which he only discovers some time later after desperately fumbling through his possessions - for he, like the main character in a novel by Franz Kafka (whom Sewell resembles physically), is totally bewildered as to who he is and how he got there. More immediate than his identity crisis however, is the sight of a dead girl's body lying in his hotel room, to which three strange bald men in long coats and trilbies, are after him.
So to begin with, Jack the Ripper may well be our potential hero's name - as this is the latest in a series of several killings that he is said to have perpetrated. Before long the police are after Murdoch, and worse than that, the Strangers (played memorably by Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O'Brien and Ian Richardson among others), with their mysterious powers to "alter physical reality by will alone", or "Tuning" as they call it - where buildings morph into taller buildings, different streets, environments, etc. The Strangers can even alter people's memories, but significantly, NOT their personality.
More surprises are to come for Murdoch - and the audience - when he discovers that he can also Tune as well, for whatever reason. Not only that, but at midnight every night - and why is it always night? - everybody goes to sleep, but not Murdoch himself this time.
He also discovers that he has a wife, Emma, played by the lovely Jennifer Connelly - a welcome name in the cast (whom I remembered as the feisty heroine from The Rocketeer and Labyrinth), bringing a touch of humanity (and admittedly decoration) to the proceedings, and sings two snappy songs as well. Emma Murdoch is a trusting and devoted but estranged wife. But is she Mrs Murdoch - or indeed, is her husband a murderer? As Emma significantly mentions later on: "I love you John, you can't fake a thing like that."
The whole existential theme of Dark City together with its haunting 1940s feel is what makes it so involving. The twists are just too numerous for me to spoil for the uninitiated viewer, especially one key moment as Murdoch and Detective Bumstead (William Hurt) begin to unravel the mystery of Shell Beach.
Hurt brings some welcome gravitas and sympathy to his role as the policeman, a much more rounded character than the usual "cop pursing the hero". In some ways I related to his character's description (as outlined by Dr. Schreber) "a very fastidious man, driven by details...rather lonely"; in point of fact, Bumstead was the original central character, until later script drafts shifted the emphasis more towards Murdoch. Not only does Bumstead have an illogical murder case to solve, but also a demented predecessor (Colin Friels) who has gone berserk (a la Renfield in Dracula) because of the case, and is also it turns out, is another "stray" who occasionally stays awake during the Tunings.
Undergound to all this are the Tuning devices themselves, as operated by the Strangers, and recognisably designed by Patrick Tatopolous (he of Independence Day and Stargate and other sci-fi spectaculars), a slick Gothic underworld (peopled by Pinhead lookalikes from Hellraiser) which successfully counteracts David Goyer's vision for the more "realistic" city above.
Sensibly in my view, the noisy climax smashes through from underground to overground, for this is truly where the film's heart lies. The invigorating finale and last scene of the film - on Shell Beach - also has a nostalgic feel to it, and is quite appropriate considering that I was seeing it in a seaside cinema.
Two years after Dark City, came another film about sense of identity in a world created by machines (and even using the same Fox Studios in Sydney): it was called THE MATRIX. Thanks to slick packaging by the Wachowski brothers and the appeal of Keanu Reeves, it made millions. But ultimately it lacked the ideas and the sheer inventiveness of Dark City.
Sometimes a film can exceed your expectations of it. I went in that evening at Clacton not expecting much more than a reasonable film, but came out having experienced a classic.
Roger Ebert's view
* out of fairness I should also mention another interesting film (late) that summer, The Truman Show