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by: Scott Renshaw

A little over an hour into DARK CITY, three of the film's central characters sit in a small boat, rowing slowly through a canal.  John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) is a man who wakes up one night to find himself a suspect in a series of murders, though he has no memory of his past; Detective Bumstead (William Hurt) is the officer investigating the crimes; Dr. Daniel Screber (Kiefer Sutherland) is a mysterious psychiatrist.  As they row row row their boat, Schreber explains in detail how he was forced to serve a group of sinister, nattily-dressed extra-terrestrials known as The Strangers.  Through the use of their awesome power to manipulate reality -- called "tuning" -- The Strangers have constructed an artificial city as a massive test environment, playing with the lives and memories of human subjects to discover what makes them human.  Only Murdoch, whose own nascent "tuning" abilities allow him to block The Strangers' control, can help free the Dark City from its dark overlords.

Sutherland prattles on with his plot summary for around five minutes, his wheezing, mannered Peter Lorre-meets-The Elephant Man delivery growing more insufferable by the moment, his character rapidly becoming something akin to AUSTIN POWERS' Sir Basil Exposition.  It's the sort of lazy, aggravating scene which is all too common in science-fiction/fantasy films, but in DARK CITY it's even more aggravating.  You see, Sutherland's interminable synopsis consists of three distinct sub-categories:  1) stuff already explicitly stated in the equally lazy opening narration; 2) stuff which should have been painfully easy to show rather than tell; 3) stuff a viewer should have been able to figure out by actually watching the preceding hour instead of waiting for someone to give him the gist of it.

And therein one can spot why it's a bad idea to take a dark existential thriller and pitch it at 15-year-olds.  Director and co-writer Alex Proyas (THE CROW) begins with several intriguing ideas -- the nature of identity, love as present experience versus collected experience, modern paranoia about loss of control -- but he seems so afraid of losing his audience that he keeps slowing down to allow the stragglers to catch up.  Every time DARK CITY begins building towards a sense of mystery or menace, a convenient, prosaic bit of dialogue breaks the spell to start spelling everything out.  When Proyas isn't afraid of losing his audience, he's afraid of boring them, which means that the climax of his psychological study becomes a ridiculously chaotic battle in which Sewell and veteran British actor Ian Richardson (as The Strangers' leader) go at it like Karloff and Price in THE RAVEN, staring each other down as waves of psychic energy, unfortunately by-standing Strangers and clouds of debris swirl around them.

I can't even work up much enthusiasm for the look of DARK CITY, with its pale, bald antagonists and a few morphing twists added to the bleak-chic cityscapes of modern science-fantasy.  Despite its brief flirtations with profound philosophical questions, it's really just another good-looking vessel in which a cast of second-tier stars (Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly) and slumming "serious actors" (Sewell, Richardson, Hurt) is asked to rattle around for 90 minutes until the special effects budget runs out.  It didn't necessarily have to be like that, not with a provocative premise as promising as that of BLADE RUNNER. It simply takes guts to let a premise like that play itself out, the kind of guts studio executives generally don't have.  I wouldn't be surprised to find out that word came down to Proyas to compromise his vision, to create something virtually impossible to walk out of saying "I don't get it."  That kind of story-telling buys you long, slow boat rides down a cinematic canal, where explorations of a shattered human mindscape give way to the pointless tour-guide ramblings of Sir Kiefer Expos


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