[Screen It]


(1998) (Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland) (R)

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Tense Scenes
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Sci-Fi/Thriller: A man who awakens with no memory of his past is led to believe that he may be a murderer, but then discovers a race of alien beings who are conducting memory experiments on humans in a city where time occasionally stands still and the sun never rises.
John Murdoch (RUFUS SEWELL) awakens in a strange hotel room with no recollection of who he is and no memories of his past. After finding a dead hooker in his room, however, he goes on the run after getting a warning call from Dr. Schreber (KIEFER SUTHERLAND), who tells him that people will be coming after him. As Murdoch begins to unravel the mystery that has totally engulfed him, he finds that he has a wife, Emma (JENNIFER CONNELLY), and that a police officer, Detective Bumstead (WILLIAM HURT), is hot on his trail for the murders everyone believes he committed. He then discovers that an ominous group of extraterrestrial beings known as the Strangers, is conducting memory experiments on the humans in this city, a place where the sun never shines and from where its inhabitants can never escape.

The Strangers possess a power known as Tuning, a telekinetic process that enables them to bring everything in the city to an abrupt halt, and gives them the ability to transform matter with singular or collective thoughts. Led by Mr. Book (IAN RICHARDSON) and his lieutenant Mr. Hand (RICHARD O'BRIEN), the Strangers are after Murdoch because he now also has their telekinetic power. As he learns more from Schreber, who assists the Strangers with their experiments, and tries to avoid Bumstead, Murdoch does what he can to unravel the mysteries of the Strangers' plans and figure out how to stop them.

If they liked movies such as "The Crow" or dark, moody comic books (ie. Male adolescents), then they just might.
For violent images and some sexuality.
  • RUFUS SEWELL plays a man whose memory's been erased and who then tries to figure out what's going on. He smokes a few times and uses his mental powers to fight the villains, but that's about it.
  • The rest of the cast members play characters who aren't developed enough (and have very flat characteristics and behavior) to be considered role models in either way.


    OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
    A sci-fi thriller that's occasionally brilliant in conception and visualization, but more often muddled in execution, "Dark City" focuses more attention on looking good than making any sense. Thus it should play well to male adolescents who are into dark, brooding comic books or who enjoyed movies such as "The Crow" in the past. Unlikely to appeal to mainstream moviegoers, though, the film will have a short run in the theaters. Much like other convoluted sci-fi stories that have come before it, however, this film might just gain a cult status simply due to its peculiar nature.

    Based on a story by Alex Proyas, who also directed this and 1994's "The Crow," the film borrows its elements from many other sci-fi flicks, but the most notable is "Total Recall" (the big screen adaption of Philip K. Dick's short story, "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale"). Much like that plot, the main character here -- and thus the audience as well -- is thrown into the story without any idea of what's really happening. It's an effective tool as it puts the audience on a level playing field with the main character and thus causes us to want to find out an answer just as badly as the lead does.

    Unfortunately, our quest is interrupted and our attention is throttled as Proyas has shot the film in such a haphazard fashion, and editor Dov Hoenig ("Heat") has so abruptly given it the razor blade treatment, that it nearly becomes a case study of how not to shoot and/or edit a film. While it gives the production something of an MTV feel (something film makers now think is obligatory to hold the teens' interest level -- which is stupid -- just look at "Titanic"), it's so jumpy as to make one believe that a) the post-production efforts were rushed, and in the hurry they just did the best they could or b) there were no continuity shots and thus the awkward feel the film exudes at nearly every moment.

    While the odd jump cuts and lack of congruity do keep the film almost always off balance -- and the audience physiologically attuned to what the main character is feeling -- I question whether that was intentional on Proyas' part, or just a byproduct of making this a feature length music video (sans the rock music, of course). Based on his previous work ("The Crow"), I'd have to say he was going more for visual style than visceral impact, but what the heck, it somewhat works regardless of whether he planned it.

    In keeping with that "interesting" look, production designers George Liddle and Patrick Tatopolous have created some marvelous set designs. Featuring a mixture of elements from the Tim Burton inspired Batman set (and the many films and TV shows that followed it), "1984" and Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," the visuals are quite stunning. You're never quite sure in what era the film is set, or if it even takes place in the future. Nearly all of the production deals with the city always being dark and foreboding -- hence the "Dark City" -- and makes us wonder, along with Murdoch, as to whether the sun will ever come out. Even so, it's time production designers came up with something new since the dark, congested city scape look is starting to wear thin.

    As far as the sci-fi elements go, the story is competent, but offers few surprises. There are some fun moments, however, such as when a lower income husband and wife are "brainwashed" into believing they're rich, and while this is happening, we see their little apartment of squalor transformed into an enormous mansion (their little eat-in table turns into an elongated dinner table) and they slip right into their adjusted, and now wealth-based, conversation.

    What's most surprising is that for a story dealing with fabricated or erased memories, and a group of beings that can alter reality with the simplest of thoughts, that whole element comes up rather empty. Granted, the Strangers are an interesting bunch to watch. Ghostly pale, bald and walking around like their joints are soldered together, they look like a crossbreed of Pinhead (from those "Hellraiser" movies and minus the pins, of course) and the vampire title character from "Nosferatu." Yet, we've seen the collective "being" plot in other entries in this genre ("Star Trek's the Borg come to mind), so there's nothing particularly frightening, disturbing, or inventive about their presence.

    While the story does slightly deal with the main character's memories coming back to him, that's what is really missing. Movies like this usually have those feint images of the past holding the key to unlocking the mystery, but this film's more concerned with the thought of memories being erased and/or passed around from lab rat to lab rat, then with what's inside those thoughts. The film makers have missed the potential of such elements that made parts of "Total Recall" so much fun. We want to see the "Is it real -- or just in my head" scenes that not only make the characters question what's happening, but also the audience as well. Unfortunately, these characters have been erased and recopied so many times they come off like a well-worn videotape -- they're fuzzy or dull -- and with little personality going for them, we don't really care about what happens.

    The film also misses the boat by not exploiting the Strangers causing "visions" or "hallucinations" that then confuse Murdoch (like those fun scenes from 1970's "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" where similarly endowed beings tried to thwart James Franciscus and Kim Hunter's efforts by confronting them with telekinetically created fire and earthquakes). Here the beings threaten people -- Are you ready? Are you sitting down? Cuz it's really scary -- with knives. Is that the best these omnipotent beings (the writers) could come up with? Of course there is the climactic brain power battle (no, not the kind that involves Alex Trebek), but it's nothing more than a souped up special effects moment that's just a variation from the scene in "Scanners" (sorry, no bulging or exploding heads, however).

    Rufus Sewell, who is so much better in the recent "Dangerous Beauty," isn't given much to do other than run around with his yes and mouth wide open. The fact that he doesn't know anything about his past prevents us from knowing the same, and the result again is that we can't fully empathize with his plight. We're more interested in trying to figure out what the heck is going on.

    The rest of the performances are just as flat. Who knows why the brilliant William Hurt ("Broadcast News," "Altered States") got mixed up with this film. He tries his best to seem interested, but even he can't overcome the shallow characterizations and complete lack of any character development. Likewise, Connelly ("The Rocketeer," "Inventing The Abbotts") seems to be performing in a daze. While that's playing somewhat true to the character being erased so many times, it still prevents us from becoming involved. Kiefer Sutherland, on the other hand, seems to revel in doing his best impersonation of his father's now stereotypical bad guy and his signature vocal delivery.

    Although the film's always interesting to watch, one can't get past the choppy direction, editing, and the lack of any real or at least interesting characters. While you'll initially wonder what in the world is going on, or will eventually happen, you'll tire of this muddled mess by the time the hokey telekinetic battle ensues. I'm sorry, they call that Tuning, and that's something this film -- like an old piano -- desperately needs. We give "Dark City" a 3 out of 10.

    Here's a quick look at the film's content. There's a foreboding, dark atmosphere permeating the film that may be unsettling to younger children (and perhaps some adults). There are several instances of male and female nudity, but no sexual encounters. A violent, but relatively bloodless encounter ends the movie, and there are several other deaths (that are somewhat bloody) that occur off screen. Beyond the beings' ominous presence and the fact that they're constantly after the main character, there's not much else that's greatly objectionable. Even so, since many male teenagers will probably want to see this film, we suggest that you look over the scene listings to determine how appropriate this title is for them, or for anyone else in your home who may wish to see it.

  • Some people drink in a nightclub/bar in several scenes.
  • A husband and wife drink wine with dinner.
  • Murdoch has just a small, bloody scratch on his forehead.
  • We see several glimpses of a dead woman who lies on the floor and has bloody spiral cuts on her chest.
  • A Stranger's head is whacked open by a falling billboard hand and blood splatters everywhere. We then see some sort of thing with tentacles crawling from the hole in the Stranger's head.
  • We see a brief memory glimpse showing a deranged man looking at himself in the mirror with blood covering him.
  • We see a little bit of blood in the corner of a hooker's mouth.
  • Emma discovers the body of a murdered hooker who has bloody spiral cuts on her chest.
  • A stranger is crushed on a fire escape (with blood splattering everywhere) when a building slams into another building.
  • A small, childlike creature bites into Murdoch's hand and draws blood (as he hangs onto the side of a building).
  • We see a brief image of Dr. Schreber, whose head is rather bloody, injecting himself with a syringe (that isn't bloody).
  • Mr. Hand nicks Emma's throat with a knife, drawing just a little bit of blood.
  • Obviously the Strangers have both as they use the humans as guinea pigs for their own experimental research, and Dr. Schreber has both as he's sided with them against his fellow human beings.
  • Emma reminds Murdoch (her husband) that she had an affair.
  • Some scenes listed under "Violence" may also be tense to some viewers.
  • The Strangers appearance -- ghostly pale, bald, sunken eyes and a stiff body pose -- may be unsettling to some viewers. Likewise, the scenes where they come after Murdoch may have the same effect.
  • Most of the film has a dark, eerie presence to it, all of which may be unsettling or spooky to some viewers.
  • There are several instances where the Strangers cause everyone to "fall asleep" and for everything in the city to stop that may be unsettling to some viewers.
  • We see several instances of Dr. Schreber sticking a drill-like syringe into different people's foreheads (not bloody).
  • We see a brief memory glimpse showing a deranged man looking at himself in the mirror with blood covering him. We also see many other disorienting and very brief flashes of images from a person's memory.
  • Both Murdoch and a stranger see a building moving closer to the fire escape their standing on, and they both try to get out of its way before it crushes them.
  • Knives: Often used by the Strangers to threaten or kill people. See "Violence" for details.
  • Handguns: Used to threaten people and to shoot some of the Strangers. See "Violence" for details.
  • Shotgun: Briefly aimed at Murdoch by another man.
  • Phrase: "Shut up."
  • A man commits suicide by throwing himself in the path of an oncoming subway train.
  • None.
  • There is a heavy amount of ominous music throughout the production.
  • None.
  • 4 damns, 1 hell, and 1 use of "My God" as exclamations.
  • We see several glimpses of Murdoch's bare butt as he gets out of a bathtub.
  • We see several glimpses of a woman and her bare breasts as she lies dead on the floor.
  • To see if he's the murderer, Murdoch goes to a hooker's place. There we see her undress (bare breasts, bare butt, and ever-so-brief full frontal nudity), but nothing happens as Murdoch then leaves.
  • Murdoch smokes about four times.
  • Some people smoke in a nightclub/bar in several scenes.
  • A hooker smokes on the street.
  • We briefly hear that Murdoch's parents were killed in a fire and that he was raised by his uncle.
  • What makes people unique and individualized from others (ie. what the Strangers were trying to figure out).
  • We see a dead and bloodied woman on the floor who was murdered.
  • The Strangers slam a motel clerk against a wall.
  • The Strangers show up and threaten Murdoch with knives on a billboard's catwalk. Two of them fall through it, with one being hanged. They continue to come after him, until the large billboard hand falls and cuts open one of the Stranger's heads, splattering blood everywhere.
  • Bumstead holds a gun on Murdoch, but Emma knocks him into the wall, allowing Murdoch to escape (resulting in a chase scene).
  • Mr. Book lifts Dr. Schreber from the floor with his telekinetic powers and then lets him crash back down again.
  • Murdoch knocks Dr. Schreber backwards by using his telekinetic power.
  • A little bit of blood is seen in the corner of a hooker's mouth, suggesting that the Strangers have roughed her up a bit.
  • A man throws himself in front of an oncoming subway train.
  • Murdoch breaks through a glass window to get inside a building.
  • Emma discovers the body of a murdered hooker who has bloody spiral cuts on her chest.
  • A stranger tries to knife Murdoch who grabs the knife and holds it to the creature's throat.
  • A stranger is crushed on a fire escape. (with blood splattering everywhere) when a building slams into another building, and Murdoch kicks in a window to get out of the way.
  • A small, childlike creature bites into Murdoch's hand and draws blood (as he hangs onto the side of a building).
  • A Stranger slits a police officer's throat (no blood).
  • Dr. Schreber holds a gun on Murdoch, but then finds that Bumstead has his gun on him.
  • A man shoots several of the Strangers before he and one of them is sucked out of the city.
  • Mr. Hand nicks Emma's throat with a knife, drawing just a little bit of blood.
  • Murdoch and the Strangers get into a telekinetic power battle where they knock each other (and others) backwards with their mental powers and there's a great deal of structural damage during this fight.
  • A knife impales a Stranger who is then impaled on the jagged remains of a building.

  • Reviewed February 20, 1998

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