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The Boston Phoenix Memory Lame

"Dark City" seeks a soul behind the effects.

By Peter Keough

MARCH 2, 1998: 

DARK CITY, Directed by Alex Proyas. Written by Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs, and David S. Goyer. With Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, William Hurt, Jennifer Connelly, Richard O'Brien, Ian Richardson, Colin Friels, and Mitchell Butel. A New Line Cinema release. At the Copley Place, the Janus, and the Circle and in the suburbs.

Memory is a forgotten faculty in popular film these days, of value only in the short term, such as last week's box-office grosses. When a film tackles memory's primacy in establishing our notions of identity and reality, not to mention such side benefits as beauty, truth, and love, even when the film is murkily mishandled and executed with overwrought, superficial stylization, the effort is worth remembering. Director Alex Proyas takes his comic-book-noir sensibility, which we last saw in The Crow, and applies it to these Big Questions in Dark City, which though at times lapsing into the fatuous pseudo-gothicism of Clive Barker nonetheless beguiles, creating an atmosphere of dread, mystery, and awe at issues generally not pondered much since sophomore philosophy class.

Memory poses a big problem for John Murdoch (an oddly unaffecting Rufus Sewell), who wakes one evening (there are no mornings in Dark City) in a bathtub in a hotel room right out Barton Fink, naked, amnesiac, and with a bloody corpse on the floor. Moments before the black-clad, beetle-browed Strangers, a Hellraiser-like cabal with names like Mr. Quick and Mr. Hand who are clearly up to no good, show up to deal with him, Murdoch slips away, finds his wallet, and begins to track down what might be his past.

That includes Emma (a sultry but wooden Jennifer Connelly), his supposedly estranged wife; a postcard from an ominously named Shell Beach that sparks protean flashbacks but is a place that no one can quite remember how to get to; and intermittent psychic powers that come in handy whenever he runs into the Strangers, whose repertoire of weapons includes the ability to zoom like a Hong Kong kung fu action star, make doors appear out of nowhere, and, most tellingly, make people fall instantly asleep.

Then there's Dr. Schreber (played in an alternately silly and inspired performance by Kiefer Sutherland as Renfield by way of Dr. Caligari and with shades of Peter Lorre), who claims to be Murdoch's shrink and can't wait to sink a big hypodermic into his forehead. Meanwhile, world-weary, accordion-playing Detective Bumstead (a heavy-footed William Hurt) has a serial killer to catch, and the likeliest suspect is Murdoch.

The serial-killer trail is a red herring and a gratuitous one -- it allows Proyas to display, Seven-like, the slashed, nude corpses of dead call girls and put poor Emma in less than spine-tingling endangerment, but it's really the least of the movie's problems. It's symptomatic of a stunted imagination -- one of the limitations the Strangers are trying to work on with their shenanigans and one with which Proyas grapples with as well. So the film becomes high-concept in a better sense -- amid the chases, operatic confrontations, and creepy cartoons of simulated evil lingers one overriding anxiety: is there a human soul behind the spectacle of experience, or is it all just special effects?

The idea, as one unfortunate character puts it, that "there's no way out....If I think of the past, it starts to unravel....when I wake up, I'll be somebody else...." is unsettling; unfortunately Proyas takes laborious pains to literalize it. True, the unnatural angles, surreal vistas, and startling juxtapositions often enhance the mood of immanent insanity. But the noirish atmosphere is more of the Dick Tracy than the Fritz Lang variety, and Proyas indulges in too many reverse-angle shots from the point of view of a sink drain and extreme close-ups of untied shoelaces.

Most distracting is Tuning, a forte of the Strangers for re-creating lives and cityscapes through mumbo-jumbo, broad black humor, Metropolis-like set designs, and heavy machinery. The Strangers' mission, apparently, is to uncover the riddle of individuality by testing subjects in a simulacrum of the world put together out of bits and pieces of the pop-cultural past. That they don't consider using elements of so-called high culture is disturbing, but then in the age of postmoderism (and this film presents one of the more coherent definitions of that term) such notions of art's transcendence are merely quaint. Proyas has, perhaps unconsciously, created an allegory of his own industry, a manufacturer of banal dreams, emotional clichés, hackneyed artifacts, and high-tech hoo-hah designed to conceal the vacancy within and without.

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