RogerBW's Blog

Dark City (1998) 03 July 2022

1999 SF noir, dir. Alex Proyas, Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland,; IMDb / allmovie. When you wake up a bath with no memories and a murdered hooker, you don't stop to ask questions.

The studio didn't think audiences would take well to a film in which they were invited to work out what was going on, so they insisted on an opening narration – which in turn will destroy much of the tension for the first half to two-thirds of the film, because the tension is specifically about what's going on. If you watch the original release of the film rather than the director's cut, skip forward about a minute and a half until you see cars moving in the city.

Blake Snyder's screenwriting book Save the Cat! wouldn't come out until 2005, but its core principle is here: Our Hero is a guy who stops while fleeing from a murder scene to save a goldfish, therefore he is a good guy and we care about him. It's crude, but it works. (And then the investigator points it out, by specifically saying "what kind of killer do you think stops to save a dying fish", which draws attention to its crudity.)

William Hurt, who manages to call himself Inspector Bumstead with a straight face, is for me the hidden star here: after all, amnesiacs and mad killers don't fit well into a noir story, and nor do psychologists, while an honest cop most definitely does. (Apparently early versions of the story would have had him as the protagonist.) Kiefer Sutherland's Dr Schreber gets higher billing and more screen time, but to me feels less like a developed character. (And as for Jennifer Connelly, well, she doesn't get to escape from the stereotype at all. Oh look she's a nightclub singer, that being the only job for women here other than prostitute.)

On the other hand, this film has the best depiction of actual paranoia I've seen – the real-world condition, I mean, the one that treats an object not being where one expected to find it not as a small memory lapse but as evidence that someone has sneaked in and changed things.

Of course, if all your memories are faked, or missing, do you meaningfully exist at all? I think the argument that this film's making is that yes, you do, and that remnant element is the soul – I'm not at all convinced, but at least the argument is made coherently. On the other hand, if as my happy-ending reward I get someone who looks exactly like the person I've fallen in love with over the last few days but who has none of the memories we made together – is that better than falling for a stranger? (Also, when do I tell her I'm the God of this world? Not on the first date.)

There are other problems. When everyone loses consciousness at once, why don't cars crash, people drown in their soup, etc.? Modern special effects make it possible to have some people in a scene frozen while other people move around among them, and I think that would be a much more effective way of doing it. The climactic battle is basically two men grunting at each other, with our hero winning by having had power suddenly bestowed on him, where the story form really demands that he should instead win because he has a soul and the opposition doesn't.

But it looks gorgeous, and that makes up for a lot. The average shot length is apparently something like two seconds – broadly the same as Armageddon – but while I felt assaulted by that film, here it just made sense as a coherent series of images.

As usual if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

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  1. Posted by Shim at 11:36am on 16 July 2022

    I might not stop to ask them, but if I woke up a bath, I would definitely have questions.

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