Every dream we dream is of a new and confusing world, a jumble of all we know and wish and fear and the moment it seems to make sense? You wake to the "real" world where all is known and comforting and nothing is amiss. Yeah, right.
"Dark City" is the best horrible nightmare you could dream of having, a relentless, near-hallucinogenic carnival ride. From Alex Proyas, director of "The Crow," it's pungent, pulp filmmaking, one of the smartest artifacts of elemental storytelling craft in ages. Here's one level: The great American horror film, which everyone has seen and almost no one recognizes, is only about twenty minutes long. It's the world-gone-wrong in "It's a Wonderful Life," when Jimmy Stewart is shown a "reality" in which he had never lived. In "Dark City," a man named Murdoch wakes to such a world, soused with mood, a nightmare where he may be a serial killer, he may be a man who beat his wife, he may be an innocent, but the facts of his life that came before, the particulars of the nameless city he wakes to, a damp and murky Disneyland left to molder, are always shifting.
The case against Murdoch (played by unlikely everyman Rufus Sewell, quite well) is investigated by a dour police detective (William Hurt); his disappearance and amnesia worry his apparent wife, a nightclub singer played by Jennifer Connelly; he's pursued for unspecific reasons by a pop-eyed, mad-scientist-style psychologist (Kiefer Sutherland). Every minute, Murdoch has to decipher this warehouse of fears and inscrutable knowledge. This nightworld, as jumbled as the mass memories of many strangers jostling in a city street, takes on the quality of lucid dreaming -- the sensation of being conscious of the fact that one is dreaming. Murdoch discovers the city is manipulated by a strange clan called "The Strangers" who have mastered the splendid mental landscapes, where reality shifts while you sleep, cityscapes morph and warp from the tops of skyscrapers to the words in your journal. The pronouncements of the Strangers are filled with words that should ring as ripe palaver, but instead chill to the bone -- "We built this city on stolen memories," one Stranger pronounces. And what city isn't?
The look of this Manhattan-size, Hong Kong-size city, a rock of edifices adrift on the cosmos, first impresses with the seediness of film noir. Yet with its austerity of detail, this smudgy, damp place, with just enough detail to register, seems more like last night's dreams, lost as the day's consciousness comes. In Proyas' elaborate tinkertoy nighttown, characters ease in and out of the long shafts of corridors and passways; a subway map is no more than a mass of torturously colored ganglia. "We wanted a style just for the film to reflect the character of dreams," the soft-spoken director says. "I wish I had the time to have a team of designers and not start from reference points, but the reality is that would take years. You never have enough time to start from scratch. First, we wanted to avoid the look of contemporary science fiction. The Strangers and the way they rearrange the city at night came from dreams I had as a child. But in designing the film, our starting point was Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis,' 'M,' the history of German expressionism. We tried to push that look."
Explanations are seldom given and definitions are avoided. Proyas says, "I think the more you explain, it limits the mythical aspects of a story. I wanted to leave it more open." The nameless metropolis where the sun never rises is divided into East City, South City, a beach no one remembers how to get to. There are purple neologisms galore -- as the city of sleepwalkers nods, there is a wrinkle in time where the Strangers come and fool with things like malevolent leprechauns, called "tuning." They also can change things by will alone, a knack called "cuning." It sounds like so much pretentious pulp-novel nonsense, yet the internal logic of the script is impeccable, rare enough in any movie nowadays, let alone a genre entry such as this. Rules are set and however strange they turn, Proyas and his co-writers David Goyer and Lem Dobbs abide by them, build on them, anticipate, then build upon your flickers of doubt about plausibility.
Time, destiny, memory, guilt -- subjects as doomy and oppressive as the look of the movie. The joys of "Dark City" are hard to describe without making it sound less than the smart, eerie, genuinely thrilling movie it is. Genre trappings are often a way for filmmakers to cloak their philosophical musings and social concerns. "I think comedy and fantasy are the two ways you can make something more palatable for a commercial audience," Proyas says. "We tried to put levels of greater meaning in 'Dark City' -- I don't want to dwell on them because it starts sounding very pretentious -- but you can see those themes, read those things if you care to, or you can watch the film as pure entertainment. For me, that's really the only way of dealing with those issues in commercial cinema, having that duality."