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"Dark City"'s stunning visuals work hard to make up for a choppy script.

By Coury Turczyn

MARCH 9, 1998:  Let's say you're a filmmaker with lots of money at your disposal, and you've got a vision—a deep, dark, brooding kind of thing, full of dream-like details and general weirdness. Now, how do you turn that vision into a movie people will want to pay six bucks to see? Here is the answer: You tell a good story.

If you can manage that, you'll be hailed as a genius all the way to the bank. But this seemingly simple little detail has derailed all too many visionaries in the past; they became so wrapped up in creating their stunning new worlds, they forgot to populate them with interesting people doing interesting things. David Lynch, Ridley Scott, Terry Gilliam, the Coen brothers, Luc Besson, Jean-Pierre Jeunet: They've all made fantastic films that have taken us to places we've never seen before, movies that exist in their own universes, brimming with amazing details and great lighting...movies that have often been slammed mercilessly by critics because they didn't always make sense.

As a card-carrying member of Bitter Critics Who Know Everything, I should be in full agreement on this point—when a director chooses style over content, it's a bad, bad thing that should be stamped out. And I can understand the reasoning: If a movie's all frosting and no cake, it can be very cloying and highly unnutritional. But (and here's where I turn the corner) film is a visual medium, so who are we to say it should be defined by the script alone? Every once in awhile, a director comes along who has so much vision that it carries a film, just like the gentlemen mentioned above. Throw Alex Proyas onto the list; his Dark City presents such a visually striking, sumptuous world, I find myself wanting to wander around in it—even though the script could use a little walking room itself.

If you don't recognize the name, don't worry; Proyas comes from (literally) the MTV school of filmmaking, having directed videos for everybody from Fleetwood Mac to (hmmm) Rick Springfield, not to mention commercials for Nike and Coca-Cola. His only movie credit is The Crow, that bit of comic book Goth that resulted in the death of star Brandon Lee. Now, four years later, Proyas is back with an even bigger epic of urban Gothic mystery. And, sort of, it works.

Brit Rufus Sewell (Cold Comfort Farm) 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 his bedroom. Why? This is the question that takes him through many subterranean levels of the perpetually dark metropolis he lives in. With William Hurt's Detective Bumstead hot on his heels, he begins to learn that everything in this city is fabricated, that reality is not real, that somebody's controlling all their lives...or it could be that he's just nuts.

Oh, that Dark City had dwelled on that plot point a bit longer, but no—instead, Proyas gives everything away even before he's developed much of a sense of mystery over who Murdoch really is and why he's wanted for murder. It's as if he—or New Line Cinema execs—were so afraid of puzzling audiences that he jumped ahead to all the answers before properly asking the questions. As we learn right from the first five seconds of the film, the city has been created by other-worldly beings who want to study humans, like rats in a Habitrail. Certainly, this isn't a bad premise for a movie (even if Star Trek has done it on TV a few million times), but did Proyas have to reveal this in the very first line of dialogue, a voice-over by Keifer Sutherland's diabolical Dr. Schreber?

Worse, Dark City's slapdash pacing and choppy editing all but ruin the film. It often feels like scenes are missing, ones that could've added a foundation for later developments. Other times, things are just discombobulated: When Bumstead suddenly saves Murdoch from the Gothic alien creatures, the next scene shows him interrogating Murdoch at police HQ for his supposed murders...without even a mention of those nasty aliens. Wasn't he at all curious as to why he had just saved the guy, and who he had saved him from? Later, Murdoch confronts Dr. Schreber in his refuge—but how the heck did he know where it was? And finally, even individual scenes feel compressed, with conversations ricocheting back and forth like a ping-pong ball. All this might work in a music video, but in a film it's mostly disorienting; it's hard to soak up the atmosphere when the scenes and the camera don't hold still long enough.

But what an atmosphere—Dark City is a visual feast conjuring everything from Metropolis to Hellraisera. Its striking imagery sparks the imagination even as the editor tries to douse it. 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.

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