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Too Much Substance for Some People

January 17th, 2010 · 5 Comments

Dark City 1998 poster Dark City Directors Cut

Dark City (1998)
Screenplay by Alex Proyas and Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer, story by Alex Proyas
Directed by Alex Proyas
Produced by Andrew Mason, Alex Proyas
Running time: 103 minutes (theatrical version)/ 111 minutes (Director’s Cut)

Should I Care?
In the sub-genre of alternate universe movies, Dark City demands to be seen with almost as much energy as it begs to be forgotten. As close to a passion project as you get in Hollywood, Alex Proyas cashed in the chips he earned directing a box office hit (The Crow) without the participation of a lead actor in Brandon Lee, who was killed during filming. Contrary to its intense ambitions, this unique hybrid of special effects phantasmagoria and existential detective mystery isn’t undone by doing too much, but by doing not nearly enough. Much like three films that would follow it into theaters — The Truman Show (1998), Pleasantville (1998) and The Matrix (1999) — Dark City deals with the inhabitants of a parallel world who begin to question the fabric of what they know as reality. Unlike those films, modern classics all, Dark City is not nearly as inventive in depicting its world or the beings controlling it as the filmmakers probably dreamed.

Proyas deserves style points for attempting something different here, as opposed to drawing a paycheck on Casper the Friendly Ghost. At its best, Dark City is drenched in the nocturnal shades of an Edward Hopper painting, with sensational lighting by Tim Burton’s cinematographer of late, Dariusz Wolski, evoking the wee small hours of the morning. Trevor Jones composed the rousing musical score, perfect for a monster movie of some sort, but not this one. The poorly sketched antagonists are more silly than sinister, while the entire cast seems to have been coaxed into sleepwalking through their performances. Maybe what’s missing most here is wit, either in a visual sense, like Terry Gilliam might have attempted, or in a spark from the characters themselves, who come across as figures in a mildewed comic book panel. If that’s what Proyas intended, the results are a big miscalculation.

Dark City 1998

So, What’s This About?
At the stroke of midnight, in a city fused with elements of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes in a hotel room where a young woman has been murdered. He has no recollection of who he is or how he got there. Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) telephones claiming to be Murdoch’s physician and warns that others are coming for him. The appearance of boogeymen known as The Strangers — who wield supernatural power over the inhabitants of the city — compels Murdoch to go on the run. Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) heads the manhunt and like Murdoch, the detective is haunted by an inability to remember much of his past, like the last time he actually saw daylight. His ex-partner (Colin Friels) has gone insane trying to unravel questions like this. Bumstead works with Murdoch’s estranged wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) in an effort to bring him in safely, but his pursuit is complicated by Murdoch’s newfound ability to alter reality.

Dr. Schreber reveals to Murdoch that he is the focus of a massive experiment by The Strangers — led by Mr. Book (Ian Richardson) and his apprentice Mr. Hand (Richard O’Brien) — to distill what makes the soul unique. The Strangers have the power to put the city’s inhabitants to sleep and at midnight each day, “tune” their experiment by changing the identities and social status of their unsuspecting test subjects, as well as the physical reality of the city itself. Murdoch has been given the identity of a murderer to play, but The Strangers learn that with the ability to “tune”, he has the power to undermine their control.  Rejecting what Schreber has told him, Murdoch becomes obsessed with finding Shell Beach, the coastal village he vaguely remembers growing up in, but no one in the city seems to recall how to get to. With Bumstead’s help, Murdoch travels to the known boundaries of the city, where the secret of his existence is finally revealed to him.

Dark City 1998 Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly

Who Made It?
Alex Proyas was a freshman at the Australian Film and Television School when an 8-minute thriller he wrote and directed titled Groping (1982) made the film festival circuit. Proyas served as a director of photography on a short by classmate Jane Campion before dropping out of school in his third year to form a production company with two friends. Proyas began directing music videos for artists like INXS and Mike Oldfield, but his work on the Crowded House hit “Don’t Dream It’s Over” (1987) won him notice in the United States. Commercial work for Coca-Cola, Swatch and American Express followed, but Proyas was already scribbling ideas for a movie titled Dark City. When he finally accepted an offer to direct a feature film — The Crow (1994) — it was due largely to similarities the projects shared in mood and setting. The success of The Crow vaulted Proyas into the class of David Fincher and Michael Bay, music video directors who’d also made the leap to features.

Proyas wanted to direct Dark City next. Disney developed it, hiring Lem Dobbs to work with Proyas, but the studio’s befuddlement with their story would prompt them to drop the project. Fox was up next and brought in David S. Goyer to help Proyas & Dobbs iron out the script. Casting differences with Proyas would ultimately compel Fox to put Dark City into turnaround as well. New Line Cinema gave Proyas casting approval and roughly $27 million to produce his dream project, which shot in the Commemorative Pavilion at Sydney Showgrounds — now the site of Fox Studios Australia — far from the gaze of the studio. After drawing mixed reception at a test screening, New Line urged Proyas to make several commercial concessions, clarifying the story with a voice-over introduction, for one. Dark City was swept aside by Titanic at the box office, but a decade since its release, it has emerged as one of the most highly regarded cult movies of the 1990s.

Dark City 1998 Jennifer Connelly

How’d They Do It?
Intrigued with the potential for combining the hardboiled detective yarn with a science fiction story, Alex Proyas began writing a script around 1990. He recalled, “Basically I had the first draft — or I’d done many drafts but I had an early draft of Dark City — ready to go after The Crow opened and was quite successful. And basically I was asked to, people presented themselves, studios presented themselves and wanted to know whether I had a project I wanted to do next and Dark City was the one I started showing people. And at that stage it was even more unusual than the final film, even more challenging, to be made as a feature. So, you know, it was a slow process and you know, we went through several studios because there were always disagreements with where they wanted the script to go, where I didn’t want the script to go. I had a very specific idea about what I didn’t want to develop the screenplay into.”

Proyas was interested in working with Lem Dobbs, author of perhaps the most highly regarded screenplay never made into a movie: Edward Ford. Dobbs recalled, “A lot of people assume I got this job — or that Alex came to me — because I had written Kafka, which is not the case at all. Alex is not a particular admirer of the film Kafka, nor should he be. He in fact had read another script of mine, and then Disney, who’d actually hired me to work on Dark City, when my name came up they said, ‘Oh, but he’s too dark.’ I think one of their problems was Alex’s script Dark City was that they felt it should be lightened up a little. And the producer of Dark City, Andrew Mason, had read a rather romantic comedic love story that I had written. And it was that script that encouraged them to hire me. And it never for one minute occurred to me that this film was Kafkaesque. I recognized right away that Alex’s script had superficial similarities to the film Kafka, but in terms of Kafka the writer and the world that he evokes and the issues and themes that he was dealing with? No.”

Dark City 1998

Dobbs revealed, “I think he pretty much hired me based on the notes I’d written and our initial phone conversation. We seemed to hit it off and be thinking along the same lines and also I had a contract in hand by the time I got on a plane and went to Australia. So that’s pretty amazing, to be hired sight unseen. Particularly when you, I remember in my notes I said, I sort of indicated certain things in the script I thought were clichés. So that’s how you get hired in Hollywood, is by telling your director that his script is full of clichés and has certain pretentious elements that should be removed! I remember the first thing was that the character was called Walker in his original script and I said, ‘You can’t call him Walker.’ It’s just been done to death and it’s been taken so famously by Lee Marvin in Point Blank, but by this point you see the name Walker and it’s meant to symbolize an existential everyman trying to find his place in the world.”

Touchstone’s executive vice president Donald De Line didn’t see a movie he wanted to produce. Dobbs mused, “In Hollywood — in any screenplay — the suits wanna know what the rules are. They want to know, they want to do the math, and it’s terribly irritating to filmmakers because we often don’t care about the math. Like I’ve been saying, I don’t care about the story, the plot. I care about the man in search of himself, and other things. And when you have meetings in Hollywood, quite often, all people can really talk about is the actual plot: How does he get from A to B, who are these aliens, where do they come from. They want everything answered. And as we know, often the best movies don’t answer everything. They leave room for interpretations. They leave room for discovery on the part of the viewer. You don’t want total confusion, obviously. You don’t want the viewer to be lost or to get bored or to be mystified, completely, but you don’t want everything spelled out. You want it to be ambiguous here and ambivalent there and have mysteries.”

Dark City 1998 William Hurt

Fox picked up Dark City next. The only screenwriter both studio and director agreed on bringing in was David S. Goyer, who’d been sent an early draft by Proyas before The Crow was even in theaters. Goyer recalled, “And I remember the first day we were talking about kind of the genesis of the ideas and he said that he had had these dreams when he was a kid with these tall, dark figures pursuing him. And I had had a similar recurring nightmare when I was a kid about being pursued by this character called the Midnight Man, and it was just this silhouetted figure that would chase me and I remember the two of us talking about that in our first meeting and from that point on we just kind of clicked.” Goyer and Proyas spent a month in Australia working on a first draft, which Fox responded to favorably. After talking with Johnny Depp among others, Proyas narrowed his choice for leading man down to Ralph Fiennes, who the studio rejected due to how poorly Strange Days (1995) fared at the box office. Reaching an impasse with Proyas, Fox put Dark City into turnaround.

Proyas lamented, “The genesis of Dark City — even once we got involved with the studio — was a really slow and ponderous one, because I wanted this thing to be just completely off the wall. And I think this is where I finally discovered the principle that functions in Hollywood, which is the bigger the budget of a project the smaller the ideas. That’s a direct correlation.” New Line Cinema — the mini-studio that had rolled the dice on Seven (1995) and Boogie Nights (1997)  — was confident enough in Proyas to grant the freedom and financing for him to make the version of Dark City he wanted. By this time, Proyas had settled on Rufus Sewell to play the role of Murdoch. A 65-day shooting scheduled commenced August 1996 in Sydney, with Dariusz Wolski serving as cinematographer and Patrick Tatopoulos as production designer. George Liddle came on board during pre-production to help construct the fantastic cityscape.

Dark City 1998

Put before a test audience, Dark City drew a middling response. The rX offered by New Line was for the filmmakers to come up with a voice-over introduction that might explain what was going on. Goyer recalled, “All throughout production we had fought that battle, because we wanted the audience to be confused at the beginning of the movie.” Though Proyas had kept The Crow true to the gothic spirit of the comic book it was based on, Dark City met so much bewilderment that the director made concessions. Proyas elaborated, “In Dark City’s case, the pressure that was brought to bear on me is simply that the film wasn’t appealing to as many, as great a percentage of the audience as a studio would like for it to appeal to in order for them to make their money back. And the reality is, they were right to a certain extent. We perhaps made a film with a greater budget than it merited for that type of story. But unfortunately, by trying to distill it down to something it wasn’t, I feel in the end you risk losing your core audience.”

Critics returned from their visit to Dark City with a myriad of views. Stephen Holden, The New York Times: “At its best, the movie feels like a magician’s trick, a gleefully improvised demonic fantasy of ominous evil genies conjured out of bottles and stirred into a steamy swirl that brings in everything from Franz Kafka to Vincent Price, from Fritz Lang to Star Trek.” Todd McCarthy, Variety: “What they have done is taken a few second-hand ideas from noir and speculative fiction and mixed them in occasionally striking ways, even if, in the end, the result isn’t all that much fun.” Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle: “Proyas’ ability to make a twilight cityscape look menacing is like no one else’s. But apart from the sensory input he throws at you, Dark City is a curiously unengaging experience. It’s like the CD-ROM games Myst or Riven blown up to huge cinematic proportions while the critical ideas driving the play are left behind. For all its dark splendor, nothing much happens to make you squirm or gasp or weep, as in The Crow. It flatlines before it ever begins.”

Dark City 1998 William Hurt Rufus Sewell

Leaving no doubt where he stood, Roger Ebert heralded Dark City as the best movie of 1998 — ahead of Pleasantville, Saving Private Ryan and A Simple Plan — and reserved some of the most effusive praise of his career in support of it. He wrote, “I responded so strongly to the film because it was intelligent, intriguing, darkly atmospheric, and most of all because it was visually breathtaking. Werner Herzog tells us we need new images or we will die. Alex Proyas’ Dark City was visionary in the tradition of Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 2001 and Blade Runner. It was a daring act of the imagination.” Ebert loved the movie so much that a decade later, in declining health, he volunteered to record an exhaustive audio commentary track for a Director’s Cut DVD. In this expanded edition of Dark City — very similar to the version Proyas test screened — the studio mandated voice-over introduction by Kiefer Sutherland was nixed. Proyas also extended several scenes, adding depth to the characters and giving viewers more time in the world he created.

Sneaking into U.S. theaters in February 1998, Dark City was virtually ignored by audiences, tallying $14.3 million domestically and $12.8 million overseas. Looking back ten years, Alex Proyas summed up the reaction to his film. “The main criticism of Dark City still to this day with some critics is, it looks really nice but it’s all style and no substance, which I take as an enormous misunderstanding of what the film is. You cannot say it’s no substance. If anything, it’s all substance, you know. I mean, you can certainly criticize it on many other levels, but you would certainly never criticize it on that level. It’s almost that there’s too much substance for some people, and they’re not prepared to invest that level of thought into something, to sort of understand what it’s trying to do.” He added, “It’s far from a perfect film and I’d be the last person to call any of my films perfect because I’m my greatest critic, but I know the level of thought that was put into that film, and it certainly does not suffer from lack of ideas or thought. That’s the one thing it doesn’t suffer from.”

Dark City 1998

Where’d You Get All of This?
Dark City — Director’s Cut. Audio commentary by Alex Proyas and Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer. New Line Home Video (2008)

Tags: Aliens · Alternate universe · Bathtub scene · Cult favorite · Dreams and visions · Femme fatale · Interrogation · Man vs. machine · Murder mystery · Prostitute

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mrs. Thuro's Mom // Jan 17, 2010 at 11:17 am

    This is one where I agree with Roger Ebert. I had a very strong emotional response to this film. I agree with Proyas, if you think it is all style and no substance, you really aren’t watching the film he made. It’s amusing now to see Rufus Sewell NOT playing a villain, because that is how so many casting directors seem to view him. Richard O’Brien has always been the stuff nightmares are made of. I have watched this movie twice, and I would happily recommend it to anyone.

  • 2 AR // Jan 18, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    This is one of those movies I liked better the second time. It improved when I thought of it being a facsimile of reality. Personally, the aesthetic appeals to me more than The Matrix, though I’d agree that particular film is more inventive in some ways.
    I do find it odd that Ebert lavished such praise on Dark City while admitting a more lukewarm responses to Brazil or Blade Runner.

  • 3 moviezzz // Jan 21, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    I loved this film theatrically, yet haven’t seen it since, even though I bought it on DVD.

    I did recently pick up the Blu-ray so plan to watch it again.

  • 4 christian // Jan 23, 2010 at 8:42 pm

    I felt like I was forgetting this as I watched it. But O’Brien was great. Love hearing Lem Dobbs stories.

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Jan 23, 2010 at 11:22 pm

    Monica: Everything you said about Dark City applies to me with Pleasantville. The moment where color is first applied to the black & white universe in the form of the red rose still evokes strong emotions from me. Obviously we had different reactions to the film in question, but I’m glad you and Roger both got so much out of it. Thanks for commenting!

    Amanda: Aestheticly speaking, I found Pleasantville far more captivating than Dark City or The Matrix. Proyas just wasn’t my cup of tea, and I’ve seen Dark City in two separate decades. I think trying to deduce why critics fall in love with certain films and ignore others cut from similar cloth probably comes down to whether their wife or girlfriend has recently left them.

    Jim: Guessing how many DVDs you own is like guessing how many women Warren Beatty has slept with. I’m not sure an exact figure can even be computed.

    Christian: Agreed, but I’m always reluctant to praise screenwriters whose best material seems to be in interviews as opposed to movies. I guess lots of people think The Limey is brilliant, but I can’t motivate myself to sit through it again to find out. Thanks for commenting!

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