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The Classics: 'Dark City'

Dark City

The Classics are must-see, must-read, must-play works revered by The Verge staff. They offer glimpses of the future, glimpses of humanity, and a glimpse of our very souls. You should check them out.

In the late '90s, one of my favorite movies was about a hyper-real city that wasn't a real city at all, but instead a false reality created by powerful Capital-O Others who needed humanity to survive and kept them trapped. The hero in this story slowly became aware of this false world and his own false memories. As he's tracked by foreboding and mysterious agents he transforms into a semi-messianic figure who broke free and learned to take control of the world around him.

If you haven't gathered from the title, the punchline to this synopsis is that I'm not (just) describing The Matrix, I'm also describing Dark City, which predated Neo and Morpheus and the rest by about a year. The movies shared similar themes (and sets!), but for various reasons The Matrix became a blockbuster and a cultural phenomenon and Dark City became a footnote. I feel like Dark City deserves both more popular and academic attention than it has received.

Freeze virtually any shot and you'll see a film that's recasting classic Hollywood images in a fresh way

As a film, Dark City is a carefully crafted mix of noir and sci fi — where an accordion-playing gumshoe detective can occupy the same space as floating aliens. Visually, it owes as much to that most-classic of all sci-fi movies, Metropolis, as it does to director Alex Proyas' previous feature film, The Crow. Visually, however, Dark City is much more rewarding — freeze virtually any shot and you'll see a film that's recasting classic Hollywood images in a fresh way that's almost never hamfisted. Dark City sits on the cusp of the computer-generated effects revolution, mixing miniatures and CGI in a way that sometimes works, but still requires the viewer to forgivingly suspend disbelief.

Dark City is a kind of love letter to the 1920s and '30s, encapsulating much of the modernist angst of the era and channeling it through a late-'90s special effects engine. It's Kafka through the lens of a superhero comic, a Fritz Lang film with aliens, and a Dashiell Hammett story with telekinetic powers all rolled into a single flick.

Roger Ebert has been spending the last fifteen odd years championing Dark City. He's recorded two commentary tracks, hosted viewing parties, and consistently included the film in his top movies lists. I feel like Ebert might be giving the movie's several flaws too much of a pass, but his enthusiastic and educated take on the craft of the film is infectious.

The memory of this film may not change who you are as a person — but then, can a memory really define you?

Although I'm not religious about these things, I do prefer the Director's Cut of Dark City, which takes away the explanatory voiceover from the beginning (hello Blade Runner fans!) and generally lets the film breathe a bit more. Even if you do track that version down, you still will be disappointed by the adolescent climax, which doesn't really fulfill the promise of Proyas' dark vision so much as blow it up in a mess of poorly-executed special effects. The bombastic score also doesn't help.

Even with those problems, Dark City is the kind of film that rewards repeating viewing. It's more claustrophobic and visually interesting than The Matrix, with a final ending that's more complicated than it seems at first blush. The memory of this film may not change who you are as a person — but then, can a memory really define you?

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