DARK CITY. Captivating and intriguing piece of sci-fi

Alex Proyas, a director of Egyptian descent, began his international career with The Crow…

Jan Dąbrowski

25 December 2023

DARK CITY. Captivating and intriguing piece of science fiction

…– a tale of revenge from beyond the grave – which became famous for being the final role of Brandon Lee, tragically deceased during the film’s production. Four years later, Dark City was created. Maintained in the neo-noir style, this crime film is set in a reality reminiscent of the forties and fifties but enriched with science fiction elements. The second consecutive production with a dense and dark atmosphere. Although lacking the scandal that usually accompanies premieres (which often translates into popularity), Dark City has gone down in history as the older brother of Inception and The Matrix, as well as an inspiration for the latter. Like the Wachowskis’ film, Proyas’ production can be interpreted on multiple levels, making it age more slowly due to its philosophical script.

Dark City plot starts with a hotel bathroom i which a man (Rufus Sewell) wakes up. He is disoriented, does not remember who he is or how he got there, and a voice on the phone instructs him to flee. When the protagonist finds a woman’s body in the room, he leaves the room, lost and terrified, and takes to the streets. Mysterious figures in black and Detective Bumstead (William Hurt), who is investigating the murders of prostitutes, follow him. His wife (Jennifer Connelly) and the crippled Dr. Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), who claims to know the cause of the hero’s amnesia, are also looking for the man. In reality, only he knows how significant the man without memories is.

Dark City Rufus Sewell

The setting is the titular city, where perpetual night reigns – each day begins at midnight for its residents. They change from day to day, just like the buildings and streets around them. Everything is subordinated to an underground mechanism managed by an alien race that can freely influence reality. Clad in black, leather robes, humanoid creatures with symbolic names (Mr. Hand, Mr. Wall, Mr. Book, etc.) test various aspects of human behavior to understand their nature.

Dark City

In terms of atmosphere building, Dark City approaches the level of the excellent Blade Runner, although it aims for a slightly different, more steampunk style. The entire film is bathed in dark colors, bottle green, sepia, and black. The narratively justified lack of sunlight and reliance solely on artificial lighting intensify the titular darkness. Street lamps, car headlights, and store neons – in their glow, the characters traverse the city’s alleys. The futuristic Metropolis-inspired panorama of towering buildings and viaducts resembles a moving maze. Its heart (an underground inhabited by a community of aliens) is a vast structure resembling a street, where everything is subordinated to research in search of the essence of the human soul. Mr. Hand briefly explains the main character’s existence:

There’s no escape. The city is ours. We built it. We created it from stolen memories – different eras and memories of them, all joined into one. Every night, we change and improve it to learn.

Dark City Richard O'Brien

Although more than two decades have passed since the premiere of Dark City, very few elements have aged, only those added computationally. Fortunately, Proyas placed the action of his film in studio decorations, giving him unlimited freedom to do what he wanted, exactly the way he envisioned it. It turned out very stylish. Elegant costumes, cramped, small spaces, omnipresent night illuminated by artificial light, vapors, and city sounds – the stylish appearance of the surface contrasts with the industrial underground managed by the aliens under the leadership of Mr. Book (Ian Richardson).

Dark City Kiefer Sutherland

It is roles like Mr. Book’s that grab attention here – supporting, characteristic roles. In this category, Mr. Hand is the most interesting. The director created the role specifically for Richard O’Brian, who played Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Disturbingly calm, endowed with subtle facial expressions, the actor has more charisma than the entire main cast – unfortunately, the trio Sewell-Connelly-Hurt played only adequately, below their capabilities.

Despite a few flaws and weaker elements, Alex Proyas’ Dark City captivates and intrigues, and its palpable atmosphere has not faded. It makes you want to watch it in the cinema.


Jan Dąbrowski

Self-proclaimed Cronenbergologist, blogger, editor, connoisseur of good coffee, and lover of insects.

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