What do you get when you combine film noir, mystery, fantasy, and science fiction? You get "Blade Runner," of course. OK, I mean what else do you get? You get "The Matrix." Let me try again. You get "Dark City." Not that I dislike film noir, mystery, fantasy, or science fiction. I like these genres a lot. And I like "Blade Runner," "The Matrix," and "Dark City" a lot. In fact, I'm pleased as punch with this new, Blu-ray edition of "Dark City" with its longer Director's Cut, improved, high-definition picture, and additional bonus items. It's a good deal all the way around.
I wasn't always so happy with the movie, though. When it first came out in 1998, I thought it was a little too derivative of the aforementioned "Blade Runner" as well as its biggest inspiration, Fritz Lang's classic "Metropolis." I didn't mind "Dark City" paying tribute to the older films; I just thought it had gone too far in imitating them. "Dark City" seemed to me at the time a perfect example of style over substance. Today, I still think the movie is mostly style, but it's a style so engrossing, it more than makes up for any lack of substance.
The fact is, the filmmakers mean for the viewer to look closely at everything in the movie, and they mean to remind the viewer of other things in film history. Its dark, curiously futuristic city of the past evokes images of the noir settings of the 40s and 50s in general and Lang's "Metropolis" from 1927 in particular; but I'd bet the movie conjures up even more-recent memories for a majority of its younger viewers. "Dark City" looks like bits and pieces of "Blade Runner," "Batman," "Hellraiser," "Phantasm," "Brazil," and director Alex Proyas's own previous film, "The Crow," with the added glumness of "Dune" thrown in for good measure.
There is no doubt that "Dark City" is as entertainingly bizarre a film as you'll find, a story that finds a strange, psychological surrealism in a nightmarish world of perpetual night. It's grim, fascinating, always absorbing, wildly imaginative, and not a little scary.
The story revolves around John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), who wakes up one night lying naked in a strange bathtub in a strange room in a strange apartment in a strange city. An unknown man phones to tell him that somebody has erased his memory. He discovers the body of a murdered woman nearby. Then, to add insult to injury, he finds a group of dark, frightening figures chasing after him.
From here, the plot of "Dark City" follows two threads: Murdoch searches the city trying to figure out who he is, while a police detective, Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt), searches the city for a serial killer, with Murdoch his most likely suspect.
I suppose one could argue that like a lot of somber-toned video games, the snoop-and-shoot action of "Dark City" is fun for a while but becomes wearisome with repetition for anyone but a devotee. That's the way I felt the first time I saw the movie. Fortunately, I've come to view it differently over time, discovering new and varied depths in its story and characters I never noticed before. How could it be otherwise when "Dark City" offers a ton of special effects, singular events, and peculiar characters. Kiefer Sutherland, for instance, does a wonderful Peter Lorre mad-scientist turn as Dr. Daniel Schreber, a fellow who claims to know all about Murdoch and his predicament. Jennifer Connelly is a beautiful, unwitting, 1940s' style, nightclub singer femme fatale, who claims to be Murdoch's wife. And Ian Richardson plays a menacingly sinister figure lurking in a shadowy underground of heaven-knows-what portent. Great, spooky stuff.
Psychologists are fond of saying that people create and order their own universe. Certainly, "Dark City" creates such a universe for itself and its characters. It explores the questions of what is illusion, what is reality, and what is the substance and meaning of the soul. The story poses some intriguing "what if" premises; the alleyways, the shadows, the camera angles, and the lighting all bespeak of vintage film noir; and the landscape would make H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe proud.
My only minor quibble about "Dark City" is that it winds up spelling out too much. Better to have left some things unexplained and let imagination do the rest. But that's OK. The trip is well worth the travel time.
New Line's video engineers have plainly done a bit of restoration work in this BD50, VC-1, 1080p, 2.35:1 ratio, Blu-ray transfer. The movie is dark, to be sure, but its colors (what there are beyond black, white, gray, and brown) now stand out more clearly and more vibrantly than in the studio's earliest SD edition; and, of course, the definition is sharper.
However, while I never noticed much graininess in the older standard-def version (which may have been a characteristic of the original print), there is hardly any grain at all in this new, ultraclean BD transfer. It looks as if New Line may have applied a further touch of filtering to the image as well as a little edge enhancement, because if you look closely you'll see some very small haloing around selected objects, especially those noticeable against light, bright backgrounds. At a normal viewing distance, the EE is not objectionable because it's hardly visible, but the picture's soft appearance does tend to make many of the characters' facial features appear almost unnaturally smooth--not quite as detailed or revealing as one would like them to be.
Nevertheless, although I would rather have seen a bit more natural film grain in the picture, the high-def video still looks good--a far sight better than the old SD version (I've not seen the studio's newer standard-def edition, which they released concurrently with this BD)--and because practically the entire film unfolds in the dark, the polished textures tend to complement the story's overall eerie atmosphere. I doubt that most viewers will mind any fiddling the filmmakers or New Line may have done now or earlier with the look of the movie.
The sonics get better as time goes on. This go-round, New Line provide a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English track. The bass thunders, and the surrounds display a good deal of subtle activity. Delicate sounds find their place in all the speakers, mostly ambient environmental noises. Dialogue, however, is a tad rounded-off to my ears, not as crisp as it might be or as it might sound in real life. It's certainly pleasing and easy on the ear, but I'm not sure it's entirely realistic.
Audio note: Users bitstreaming DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 to certain newer receivers--Denon, Integra, Onkyo, and Yamaha, among others--for decoding have reported occasional pops during playback. DTS supposedly informed the receiver manufacturers of this issue, and the manufacturers supposedly resolved it in their current models, while offering upgrades to older product. In addition, the folks at DTS supposedly have provided studios with instructions on how to reproduce DTS-HD MA 7.1 audio to avoid the problem altogether, but apparently not all studios got the memo. Using an Onkyo 705 receiver, I found this particular disc made a small pop every time I took it out of "Pause." Since at the time of this writing I had not yet upgraded my receiver, the work-around I used was to put the receiver in "Mute" for a moment just before returning it from "Pause." Maybe New Line had this BD already completed before they could implement DTS's instructions, I don't know. Just a caution.
The major extra on the disc is getting a new Director's Cut along with the movie's original theatrical release. While the original version is about 100 minutes long and rated R, the Director's Cut is eleven minutes longer and unrated. The first thing you'll notice, though, is what's missing in the Director's Cut; namely, a voice-over prologue that the studio thought audiences would need to understand what they considered a difficult movie to comprehend. We're better off without it. Then, if you want to know more about the differences in the two versions, you can choose to watch the DC with an optional "Director's Cut Fact Track," which provides pop-up comparisons between the two versions.
As far as audio commentaries go, this Blu-ray disc offers five of them. On the original cut you'll find a track with director Alex Proyas, writers Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer, director of photography Dariusz Wolski, and production designer Patrick Tatopoulos, plus another track with film critic Roger Ebert. On the Director's Cut you'll find new tracks by the director, by the writers, and by Ebert. If I had to listen to only one of these tracks, it would be Ebert's commentary on the Director's Cut.
Next up, accompanying the Director's Cut are two 1998 documentaries, "Memories of Shell Beach," forty-three minutes, and "Architecture of Dreams," thirty-three minutes, with an optional introduction by director Proyas and critic Ebert.
Things wrap up with a production gallery of photos; two text essays: fantasy author Neil Gaiman's take on "Dark City" and a comparison of "Dark City" to "Metropolis"; seventeen scene selections; and a widescreen, high-def theatrical trailer. There is only English available as a spoken language,
but there are Spanish subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.
In addition, the package includes a second disc containing a digital copy of the movie for use on Windows Media compatible PCs.
Whichever way you look at it, "Dark City" does create its own world, even if it's so weirdly familiar a world that at first I couldn't quite suspend my disbelief long enough fully to appreciate it. Over the years, though, I've found it is the kind of film that bears more repeat viewing and less analysis, viewings I have done any number of times and plan to continue doing.