1998 was a quietly great year for movies. The modest, if not mediocre, Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture, and there weren't many films that really broke into the cultural consciousness, and it'd be difficult to find anything very iconic from that year. What it did give us was a handful of original, inspired, niche films that found small pockets of audiences that adore them. Alex Proyas' Dark City is such a film.
A spaced-out premise if there ever was one, Dark City is a sort of sci-fi neo-noir about a dying alien race trying to discover the secret to humanity. Each night they freeze time and through telekinesis morph the environment and implant random citizens with an engineered set of memories and observe how they act.
At once a brilliant piece of sci-fi, and a pulp detective story, Dark City has William Hurt trying to solve a murder case whose lead suspect, John Murdock (a great noirish moniker possessed by the vastly under-appreciated Rufus Sewell), has lost his grip on reality after waking up during a memory implant and begins to notice that something in his life is wrong. Proyas packs big ideas into his bizarre premise, and makes an impassioned plea for people to question reality, or at least their position in it. A recurring exchange in the film has John asking how to get to Shell Beach, a place advertised on every billboard, and where everyone has vivid childhood memories, and nobody can come up with an answer, nor do they seem disturbed by the idea. And Hurt's stoic, no-nonsense stock detective becomes truly interesting when he is essentially forced into investigating reality itself as he begins to unravel the mystery of John Murdock, and Proyas' approach to his absurd sci-fi premise begins to shape into something more than mere strangeness for its own sake.
With its brilliant premise, startling production design and a brilliant supporting cast that includes Jennifer Connolly as John's supposed unfaithful wife, and Keifer Sutherland as a timid, mousy doctor in charge of concocting memory serums, Dark City is the undiscovered gem you've been searching for at 2 a.m. on Netflix on sleepless nights. And though it does end with a standard, effects-laden telekinetic CGI battle, it banks enough quality along the way to disregard this well-intentioned misstep in favor of appreciating the ideas within it. Check it out... You will not regret it.
Dark City (1998)
Directed by: Alex Proyas
Written by: Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer
Featuring: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland and Jennifer Connelly
Plot: A man struggles with memories of his past, including a wife he cannot remember, in a nightmarish world with no sun and run by beings with telekinetic powers who seek the souls of humans.
Feature by Bradley Redder of This Week's Movie. Have a Secretly Awesome suggestion that you'd like to propose? Or have a past or present entry you'd like to argue about? Feel free to e-mail Brad at firstname.lastname@example.org.