Dark City is a strange SF, noir-ish film that feels like it was made for film nuts. There’s a lot of oblique references and atmosphere which seems intended to appeal specifically to viewers with a broad knowledge of film. Without having seen movies like Alien or similar films on the one hand and noir like Asphalt Jungle on the other, the language of the imagery will be nearly incomprehensible.
There are also certain similarities with The Matrix, but this was the earlier of the two films. Here Rufus Sewell as John finds himself in a world that has stopped making sense. He begins to wonder if he has lost his grasp on reality or if there is a secret hidden behind a facade. William Hurt is the cop chasing him, Keifer Sutherland is a mysterious doctor who may know more than he’s telling and Jennifer Connolly is John’s wife(?) who doesn’t remember him.
Back of it all are a strange group of pale men of various apparent ages who definitely know more and are manipulating events to their own strange ends. Somehow, somewhere inside John’s head is the key to what the pale men want, but given their behavior and unconcern for the rest of the city it seems unlikely John would survive them obtaining it. Hurt himself begins to wonder about what it is that makes John different when congruences between him and a fellow former officer begin to arise. Like The Matrix, this film suggests that the truth can set you free, but it is also quite capable of driving you mad.
Sewell is not often afforded a chance to take a leading role and he handles it well enough. The script and directing shine here and the performances are all solid, competent, and good even if they don’t sparkle in brilliance. An exception worth noting, however, is Sutherland’s turn as a frail, diffident, stuttering doctor is one which allows him to show his range and ability as an actor and he carries it off with aplomb. Nothing could be further from his turns as Jack Bauer and the Marine sergeant from A Few Good Men.
The movie takes an admittedly superficial look at what it means to be human, but the atmosphere and mood can’t be beat. It starts dark in literal and metaphorical ways and descends from there. While it seems to end in an almost cliched, upbeat fashion, a moment’s reflection should bring home just how dark the lining is on the silver cloud.
Too much more and I’ll start spoiling the film, but even though the end is pat to a degree they are indeed careful to not over-gild the lily. A refreshingly small, self-contained film; even more valuable in the days of sprawling, interconnected universes.