Dark City has been compared to Blade Runner, a 1982 sci fi wonder from Ridley Scott that starred Harrison Ford. Would that Dark City were half as good.
The best sci fi or horror films – the genres have much in common – are grounded in believable characterizations and motivated behaviors. The sci fi or horror film then lets imagination take off and explore other worlds, other times, or other consciousness, letting exotic images and ideas stimulate and engage the viewer in order to enhance an intelligent theme. These genres exploit our fears of the unknown, our attraction to fantasy.
But if there is no real point to be made beyond the obvious, or if the characterizations are shallow, the motivation muddy or obvious, then these efforts tend to fall flat, to degenerate into ordinary comic strips.
Dark City is ambitious, and tries to aim for some big themes: Where is the human soul really lodged? What is the nature of identity? Can it be captured and recycled – in this case by a dying alien race? The forces of dark and the forces of light combat for survival. Paranoia is the tone, with syringes the size of an M-14 aimed at the forehead, knives flying, bloody spirals carved into breasts.
CV has seen far worse films than this one, but, alas, Dark City doesn’t rise above the comic strip level. The special effects and the atmospheric look of the piece are excellent. The aliens are suitably evil and eerie, even if they do look like so many Mary Poppins when they levitate themselves around town. Kiefer Sutherland is the somewhat mad scientist, complete with limp and strange speech patterns. Our hero is Rufus Sewell (Cold Comfort Farm, Dangerous Beauty) in a good performance, but every time Sewell is paired with the leading lady, Jennifer Connelly, it all falls apart as Connelly offers the worst performance by an actress in all of 1998. Other featured roles are skillfully played by William Hurt and Ian Richardson. What ever possessed writer/producer/director Alex Proyas to undermine his own efforts with a leading lady who has all the charm and acting ability of Super Glue?
As it turns out, the themes are obvious and Mr. Proyas did not have a thoughtful or original point of view to share that would measure up to his production values. Lots of style here, not nearly enough substance.