“Which one are we going to see?” I asked my friend Marc as we drove over to the Edwards multiplex in Upland.
“The Matrix,” he said unhelpfully. He must have read the blank look on my face and amended, “Dark City 2.”
“Oh, okay,” I said, some sense of context having been returned to the proceedings. You see, according to Marc, Dark City had three sequels coming out in 1999, all borrowing the gloomy aesthetic, supernatural overtones, and gothic-punk cool so in vogue in the late ‘90s. That night, we saw The Matrix and promptly forgot all about poor old Dark City. It’s tough to explain the reaction to watching Carrie-Ann Moss wirefighting a bunch of Australians through a green-dyed cyberpocalypse. I had never seen anything like it, and like many others in 1999, promptly devoured information on the wuxia genre that inspired The Matrix’s (for me) inventive action sequences. I joked with Marc later about how we used to call it Dark City 2, when that movie has been largely forgotten, and this one instantly became enshrined alongside Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Yet, when I watched The Matrix again for the first time in several years, it seemed hopelessly dated. It wasn’t just the fetishy fashions and the now-stale wire work. The morality of our heroes, which I had glossed over, now seemed monstrous. I could no longer ignore Keanu’s inert performance (and even at the time pretended he was Brandon Lee), or the ridiculous declaration of love in the final moments. Time had eroded away the wonder and laid the flaws bare. I still like The Matrix. I’ll still happily watch it. I’ll still wonder why they never made any sequels, aside from a short movie about Morpheus playing in traffic. But it is no longer the singular work of blindsiding genius that I saw four times in the theater as a broke-ass college student.
I can’t be certain when I first became aware of Dark City’s director’s cut. I read something about how vastly improved it was over the interesting but fatally flawed version released to theaters, and had become intrigued. The movie had wonderful elements, but the story never lived up to the promise of the German Expressionist style married to the modern retropunk aesthetic. Roger Ebert already named the theatrical cut the best film of 1998, but there was always the sense that Dark City could be better. Should be better, in fact. This undersells the director’s cut, which turns a flawed-but-fascinating film into a legitimate masterpiece.
The plot is framed as an amnesiac mystery: our enigmatic hero, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), wakes up in a bathtub to find he’s sharing a hotel room with a dead hooker. He gets a panicked phone call from a mysterious man we later learn to be Dr. Daniel Schreber (a pre-Jack Bauer Kiefer Sutherland), telling him that men are coming to kill him. As Murdoch flees the hotel room, he catches sight of a group of sepulchral men in black trenchcoats on his heels.
Murdoch escapes into a dystopian cityscape so ominous it makes Gotham City look like Pleasantville, and has to unravel the two questions that face every man at some point in his life: 1) who am I? and 2) did I kill that hooker? All the evidence points to him as a cuckold taking revenge on unfaithful wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly, in the last gasp of her super hot and unruly eyebrow phase). Yet if he is a killer, he’s a soft-hearted one, as he takes the time to rescue a dying goldfish before fleeing the hotel.
He’s pursued by two groups. On one side there are the mysterious Strangers, the aforementioned men in the dark trenchcoats (including recognizable faces to genre fans like Bruce Spence and Richard O’Brien). They are pale as corpses, have bizarre vocal tics, and seem to be capable of some sort of telekinesis. On the other side, Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt) is the homicide detective investigating the murders of six prostitutes, the latest of which is the unfortunate woman in Murdoch’s room. Schreber’s motivations are initially murky: at times he seems aligned with the Strangers, and at others claims to be working in Murdoch’s best interests.
That’s all I plan to say about the plot, since this is a film best appreciated blind. It thrives on its central mysteries, playing out as an extended nightmare. The most important change from the theatrical is the elimination of an opening bit of narration that outlines several of the film’s plot twists. This is obviously the result of a dumbass executive who can’t wrap his brain around one of the most important elements of storytelling, and demanded a front-loaded explanation. Before the director’s cut, it was common practice to simply mute the film until the close up of the pocketwatch (and this is something I heartily recommend if you can only get your hands on the theatrical version).
Like any well-constructed mystery, Dark City holds up well on repeat viewings. Innocuous dialogue artfully foreshadows twists, and weird moments take on deeper meaning once the layers are stripped bare. Bumstead’s partner, Walenski, initially appears as a raving schizophrenic, but like all Cassandras, his ranting is only understood in retrospect. One of my favorite hints that everything isn’t as it’s presented is a subtle moment when Murdoch goes to Neptune’s Kingdom, a local aquarium. There is only a quick shot of the fish tanks, but every single one of them is an Oscar. The mundanity of the fish and the absence of variety betrays the aquarium as an ersatz creation — who the hell would pay money to see a bunch of Oscars?
Spirals are a relentless symbol throughout the film, usually appearing during scenes of death or imprisonment. We first see them carved into the skin of the dead hooker, then later as compulsive drawings on Walenski’s wall, as Murdoch’s fingerprints (which a Stranger takes as a sign Murdoch is special), Bumstead’s coffee and doodles, Emma’s earrings, and perhaps most tellingly as a rat maze in Schreber’s office. Rats reappear when Bumstead finds a rat trap Walenski put amongst his files, ostensibly for people snooping, thus making the link between rodents and humans explicit. On the brighter side, when Murdoch first looks at his reflection, it’s in a cracked mirror, and later, once he’s accepted his wife, his reflection (with her beside it, as it’s through glass) is whole. Identity is remarkably fluid, the film states, yet we are whole in the eyes of those that love us.
Dark City is a big movie about identity and what role memory plays in that question. The answer the film finds is refreshingly humanist, helping to counterbalance the relentless darkness, both physical and metaphorical. With many entries in Now Fear This, I offer some caveat to enjoying the film I recommend. I point out that I’m mostly looking for fun, overlooked movies to enjoy, which is how I would have pitched the theatrical release. Not so the director’s cut. I am recommending one of the best science fiction films ever made. See it.