Friday, May 11, 2007

Movie Review: Dark City

That's some fine sf!

Dark City, directed by Alex Proyas. New Line Cinema. Starring Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, and Jennifer Connelly. Screenplay by Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs, and David S. Goyer. Runtime 96 minutes. Rated R.

Read other reviews here.

I know I haven't been blogging much lately; things are topsy-turvy here and I'm likely to be moving soon, which naturally makes the blogging erratic.

This movie's been around for about a decade, but it came out when I was in high school and R-rated movies were forbidden. I knew it was likely to be something special when it came out; now, at last, I've seen it.

The movie's greatest drawback is that it's confusing. The quick editing keeps it from getting dull, but it also renders it occasionally incoherent. A number of times in the movie, I was wondering where exactly the characters were in relation to each other. As a result, some of the sequences were less meaningful than they should have been, especially the action sequences. Probably the second-greatest problem is the odd insertion of gratuitous nudity in the film's beginning. They must have been afraid of bombing at the box office if they didn't make an R-rating on this thriller, which isn't especially scary or thrilling.

Dark City succeeds mainly by combining so many good tropes. We have the film noir setting with the creepy city, old cars, and stark lighting. We have a pretty good set of scary villains in The Strangers, who are pale white, talk in weird deadpan voices, and wear trench coats and black hats. Oh, and they carry knives. These are supposed to be powerful, high-tech aliens, but their favorite weapon is the knife. Go figure.

Story-wise, the greatest mistake is the film's need to explain the premise three times. Yes, I get it: The Strangers are aliens who have kidnapped a bunch of humans and stuck them Somewhere Else in this atmospheric city to run nightly experiments on them after putting the whole city to sleep. They have one human scientist who works for them and knows everything. There's one guy (Rufus Sewell) for whom the experiment goes wrong, and for reasons never explained, he has some of the aliens' psychic powers. It's a good little premise, but it isn't especially original or convoluted. Hearing the same character (Kiefer Sutherland) lecture on it three times over is a bit much. I especially dislike that he gives this lecture right at the beginning, so from the start there's little mystery. It might have been better if they'd set up the story a little more tightly so I could be happily confused for, say, ten minutes before Dr. Explainslove shows up.

The plot follows some recognizable motifs. As a nod to the noir inspirations, there's a gruesome murder right at the beginning and a hard-boiled detective (William Hurt) who's looking for the murderer. Coupled to the serial murder plot is the classic hero-who-wakes-up-with-no-memories-and-has-to-discover-his-true-destiny-and-save-the-world motif. This oldie but goodie has become such a cliché of fantasy/sf, I think only inexperienced plot-makers are unafraid to use it; for example, I point the reader to Doug Chiang's Robota, a medium-good picture book with a plot so uninspired even Orson Scott Card's enthusiastic writing doesn't save it. On top of that, half the illustrations, excellent as they are, have nothing to do with that story...but I'm getting off topic.

Let's face it, though: The no-memory hero is a great idea, and I bet it still has juice in it if a solid writer uses it. For one thing, it gives the reader or viewer a comfortable way of being introduced to the fantasy/sf world--through the eyes of the protagonist.

So I can, with some hesitation, recommend Dark City. Certainly its noir set design is worth seeing if nothing else.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Dark City:

Myth Level: High (some classic motifs including the hero on a journey of self-discovery who turns and saves others)

Quality: Medium (nice city, now would you let me look at it?)

Ethics/Morality: Medium (some problematic scenes at the beginning)
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