When Jesse and I realized we’d watched Total Recall and Dark City in quick succession, we decided to appoint November as Memory, Humanity, and Dystopia Month. So, cool! Theme months. Be warned, though–I was cranky and tired when I wrote this week’s review, so it’s probably more unfair than usual. . . but I also tend to get more riled by near misses than epic failures, just because I hate to see a good thing ruined. And after a very strong, compelling start, Dark City was ruined for me by a third act fumble of epic proportions, in that involved Heavy Exposition, The World’s Crappiest CGI Battle, Space Aliens, and a Conclusion that is Morally Questionable But Goes Internally Unquestioned. Woo! Onward:

The Film: Dark City (1998)

WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Mostly Alex Proyas (The Crow, Knowing), who directed and co-wrote with screenwriters David S. Goyer (the Blade series) and Lem Dobbs (the Gary Busey classic Hider in the House). Soundtrack by Trevor Jones (From Hell), with some help from Anita Kelsey and Echo and the Bunnymen. Starring Rufus Sewell (A Knight’s Tale, The Illusionist), Jennifer Connolly (Labyrinth, Requiem for a Dream), William Hurt (A History of Violence, the Dune miniseries), Ian Richardson (Brazil), Richard O’Brien (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), and a bizzaro version of Kiefer Sutherland (Jason Patric and the Coreys versus the Dreamy Living Dead).

Quote: “Remember, John, never talk to strangers!”

Alternate quote: “No more Mr. Quick. Mr. Quick, dead, yes.”

First viewing by Molly: A couple of weeks ago.

First viewing by Jesse: In the theatre, so mid-high school.

Most recent viewing by both: A couple of weeks ago.

Impact on Molly’s childhood development: None. Never heard of it.

Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: Slight. I recall appreciating the aesthetic but thinking it aped a bit from City of Lost Children, stylistically. Like any teenager worth their weight in angst and mix-tapes, I was fiercely defensive of things I enjoyed and convinced everyone was out to take cools things and make them not cool via the dread mainstream.

Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:

Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Our local video store is currently selling off stock, and when Jesse saw it on the rack he said something like “LOL DARK CITY” but in real-life speech. I was like “What the heck is Dark City?” and he replied “Oh, man. We should do that for Films of High Adventure,” but due to his refusal to tell anyone anything about a movie before watching it, wouldn’t say more.

Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Intrigued. I had only seen it the once, when it came out, and remembered thinking it was good if not great. I really couldn’t remember much about the movie, other than being dissatisfied with the finale and thinking wonky-ass Kiefer Sutherland was about the coolest thing ever.

Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: I’m still recovering from WFC so I’m just warning you—this is going to be disjointed and ranty.

Dark City is a case of squandered potential. I mean, it’s a movie that would be infinitely better without the lead actors’ characters being part of the plot. Yeah, I know, “what?” But it’s true. And just think about that for a second. I’m trying to think of another movie where I wished so continuously that the male and female leads would just go away so I could hang out with the supporting cast, but I’m coming up empty, because most movies where I despise the leads, I also am pretty eh about the supporting actors as well [Jesse says: uh, didn’t we just try to watch The Frighteners? I would watch maybe a thousand movies about Jeffrey Combs’ FBI agent character]. Not so here, where had Rufus Sewell and Jennifer Connolly been totally absent, it would’ve been a much, much better film, even with the goddamn space aliens in the third act.

I simply cannot wrap my head around why on earth the scriptwriters thought milquetoast monomyth nothing-master Sewell and Bland Love Interest Connolly were even remotely as engaging as twitchy mad scientist Kiefer Sutherland and angsty detective William Hurt. Then again, the scriptwriters thought that “space aliens create a large film noir-styled spaceship, populate it with human subjects, and use a scary syringe to switch up memories in people in order to search for what makes the human soul oh-so-precious and unique (?)” was an okay plot, so perhaps I’m just caring about this a bit too much [Jesse says: you’re right, it’s not an okay plot—it’s a great plot!]. After all, the space aliens hire Kiefer Sutherland’s “psychologist” character to go around switching up people’s memories because he. . . is an artist of the mind? Or something? ORLY? Is that what psychologists are? What? Jesus fucking Christ.

It’s just—argh. I just think Dark City had so much to offer, so much interesting stuff that (omg a sports metaphor?) is just sitting on the sidelines. Nay, languishing. Every good character, every engaging concept is benched (woo) in the name of that style of plot wherein a generic white male (with telekinesis!) will save the human race because he is a generic white male (with telekinesis!) and thus must overcome adversity for all our sakes in the form (this time) of the world’s lamest CGI battle.

In the end, Dark City begs no deeper question of its audience than “why should we care?” Sewell brings no depth to his role, but he’s not given much to work with other than a character description that was probably written down somewhere as ‘He is a generic white man who evolves telekinesis and shall save the world,” and indeed, is scripted in such a way that he comes off as kind of a d-bag at the end (more on that later). Jennifer Connolly is only worthy of our interest because she is pretty [Jesse says: and dresses nice and has a lovely singing voice (dubbed over her own)—what on earth more do you want from a female lead?!]. Of the only two interesting characters, one disappears into the shadows by way of resolving his plotline, the other is. . . sucked. . . out. . . into. . . space. Nice tidy ending there, especially because that character had more chemistry with Connolly than Sewell, so out he goes! Yeesh.

For a film that tries to be all moody and dark and emotional, it evokes zero pathos because there is no real substance, and like I said, anything interesting is just ignored. To wit: why did Sewell in particular evolve telekinesis? Why, if the detective had his memories of being a detective implanted, is he so good at noticing stuff? Why is Sewell convinced Connolly actually likes him, when he knows perfectly well that she had her love for him implanted in her skull, just like her memory of cheating on him [Jesse says: because you can’t fake love, Molly, the movie told us that multiple times, REMEMBER?!]? Why does he choose to believe one lie and not the other? (Because she’s pretty.) Why are there spirals everywhere? Does Kiefer Sutherland regret his decision to work for the space aliens? Did he retain any of his own memories? Does RiffRaff’s character yearn to be human and that’s why he chooses to have human memories implanted, or did he have a different reason to volunteer? WHO CARES! CGI BATTLE! IT’S-ALL-OK ENDING! CREDITS!

I dunno. I could go on, but it’s just one of those things where I can’t care any more, so I’ll just put the cap on this bottle of haterade by saying that Dark City’s ending is a perfect synecdoche for the entire film. Basically, at some point, the space aliens re-implant Connolly’s memories, giving her amnesia; Sewell retains his memories. After saving the world and then being given the power to re-shape it however he wants—and he just, like, does it because he’s apparently fully confident that he should be Lord of All and A God Amongst Men—he meets her on a weird little pier and pretends he’s seeing her for the first time, and they go off to presumably have a relationship. THIS IS PROBLEMATIC. Right? Who cares—he gets the girl! That’s it. I’m done.

Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: I actually thought it was better than I remembered. Although I’ll agree with Molly’s assessment of a third act fumble, plot-wise, it bothered me way less the second time around, probably because I was vaguely expecting it and was thus prepared for it. I also appreciate now that it’s much more of its own thing than I’d previously given it credit—although the City of Lost Children touches are obvious, they’re not nearly as prevalent as I had remembered. The Jeunet and Caro film is one of my all time favorites, hence my protectiveness of it, but coming at it from a more experienced position, cinematically speaking, I see now that it’s just one of many sources of inspiration, and I would never begrudge anyone for loving the same works as myself.

So it’s a bit of a mess, and I agree that Hurt and Sutherland’s characters are more interesting than our actual focal points, but it’s so damn pretty I’m willing to forgive a lot. And I don’t have quite the aversion to aliens of the space variety that Molly does, though I’ll allow that I too was disappointed with the revelation the first time around. This is an unusual case of actually liking a film a bit more the second time around—being forewarned of its failings, I was better equipped to appreciate its successes. Other than that, I think Molly really covered all the bases (sports reference!) so I’ll leave off by saying that while she is technically correct about everything, it doesn’t make this movie any less cool looking, nor does it make Mr. Young Guns any less twitchy.

High Points: Kiefer Sutherland tweaking out. RiffRaff rocking the bald look. The hand-wringing of the creepy-ass strangers:

Low Points: When one gets to the point in the movie that should be titled Kiefer Sutherland Explains the Movie.

Final Verdict: A gorgeous, stylish thriller that trips over its CGI-enhanced feet in the third act.

Next Time: We continue Memory, Humanity, and Dystopia Month with either Robocop or Total Recall.