a film by Alex Proyas

Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, Richard O'Brien and Ian Richardson. D: Alex Proyas.
  P: Andrew Mason and Alex Proyas. W: Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer.

 John Murdoch just woke up in a strange hotel room with a mutilated corpse. He doesn't know who he is, where he's from, where is is, how he got there. And he's completely uncertain whether he just committed the latest in a series of gruesome murders that has plagued a very strange city, a city that hasn't known sunshine since...well, since anybody can remember.

This is just the beginning of a bizarre, paranoid odyssey for John Murdoch (played with surly intensity by RufusSewell), during which he'll discover the truth about himself, his wife, and the very strange universe in which he lives.

Alex Preyas, the quirky director who gave us Brandon Lee's swan song The Crow, has returned to the realm of dark fantasy with his latest project, Dark City. That's right, dark fantasy. Not science fiction. Oh, there are a few sci-fi tropes at work here—telekinetic aliens called The Strangers, a population of humans held captive for sinister memory experiments, biotechnology and mind control. But Dark City doesn't explore the implications of these themes in anything like a science fictional way. Rather, Preyas uses these conventions on his audience in the same way Kiefer Sutherland, as the human doctor who conducts experiments for the Strangers, uses his cranial syringes. Aliens and captive humans and mind control are simply the devices Preyas uses to plumb the complex relationships between memory, personality, reality and the human spirit.

He doesn't offer up any earth-shaking answers. Preyas sets us up for what could have been a shattering ontologic revelation: our lives are shadows, our memories are liquid and elusive, our reality, built on those memories, is without substance or foundation, and our "souls" are nothing but malleable ghosts held within the shadowy mirage, the dark city, of our existence. Nothing is real.

Alas, Hollywood can't have that, and instead of forcing us to examine the full implications of the strangely beautiful metaphor he has constructed, Preyas gives us the mandatory Uplifiting Ending: our lives do have meaning, even if we don't know what it is (Preyas damn sure doesn't tell us), and notwithstanding the transitory and illusory nature of the world, our souls are, goddamit, real, and make us human. Murdoch confronts Mr. Hand, one of The Strangers (Richard O'Brien) and points out the mistake of confounding human memories with human reality: "You looked in the wrong place." Uh huh. Heavy.

But it's pretty tough to get Hollywood to back a science fiction movie that doesn't give us the Uplifting Ending, and at least Preyas guides us through some pretty strange and paranoid territory along the way, with an intelligent script, vivid characters, and stunning visual imagery. The Strangers look like a cross between the Guildsmen in David Lynch's Dune and the evil angels out of Hellraiser. Richard O'Brien, in a welcome comback to the screen (he was the writer and one of the stars of the Rocky Horror Picture Show) is delightfully wicked as Mr. Hand. The Dark City itself is masterfully wrought, and though the potential of computer animation has already lost much of its newness and luster, the renderings of the City's nightly transmogrification have a beautiful, terrifying absurdity.

And at least Preyas bothered to take us part of the way, to leave us in doubt for awhile about our world and ourselves, before he copped to the sunlight and ocean breeze, solid earth beneath our feet and steadfast faith in human reality and human significance. In the wasteland of vapid monster movies, feel-good moralizing, and protracted juvenile video games that passes for sf film these days, I'll take what I can get.

Phillip K. Dick meets Clive Barker.

Sullydog approves.

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