Dark City DVD Review
Written by Eric Strauss
DVD released by New Line
Directed by Alex Proyas
Written by Alex Proyas and Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer
1998, Region 1 (NTSC), 96 minutes, Rated R
DVD released on July 29th, 1998
Rufus Sewell as John Murdoch
Kiefer Sutherland as Dr. Daniel Schreber
Jennifer Connelly as Emma Murdoch
Richard O'Brien as Mr. Hand
Ian Richardson as Mr. Book
William Hurt as Inspector Frank Bumstead
Dark City is difficult to describe. It is a film full of stunning images set against a surreal noir backdrop, but it is more than a pretty picture — it is a dark fable filled with mystery, as a man trying to find his identity discovers there is more to his world than meets the eye. He awakens in a hotel room with a dead hooker and no memory, and as he pieces together his life, he finds himself at odds with his past and the gloomy city around him.
And then there is the matter of the mysterious "strangers" pursuing him, not just for a murder, but for some more sinister reason.
Alex Proyas, best known for directing The Crow, uses the same dark palette and striking imagery to tell this science-fiction tale, and his visuals truly shine — if anything in the city does - as the true star of the film. The titular city is a world gone mad, and Proyas' visuals reflect the sense of foreboding felt by the out-of-place hero. Everywhere, buildings and shadows loom and the atmosphere is so heavy it can practically be touched.
Proyas gets strong acting from an experienced cast. Rufus Sewell (A Knight's Tale) was a virtual unknown, but he was a veteran of the British stage and acquits himself nicely, despite a few occasions when his character's bland accent is betrayed by its actor's English roots. William Hurt (Lost in Space) gives the sturdy Inspector Bumstead a subtle depth of character while the always-lovely Jennifer Connelly (an Oscar-winner for A Beautiful Mind) is set up to leave a striking impression with her looks.
The one possible sour note is Kiefer Sutherland (A Few Good Men), who gives a performance designed to frustrate as Dr. Daniel Schreber, who helps the "strangers" and knows more than he lets on. Sutherland is a talented actor, but Schreber's rasping, winded voice can be hard to understand at crucial times.
What sets Dark City apart is the completeness of its atmosphere. Much of the city looks like something out of a 1940s nightmare, and what takes it beyond that is the idea that, when it feels like the walls are closing in, for the amnesiac hero, they really are. And that psychological element is the crux of the disquieting aspect of the film - this is science-fiction with the creepiest of edges, personified by the pale, menacing "strangers" in their black coats and with their cruel knives.
To give away too much of the plot would detract from the film's other strong suit — its mystery. As the hero struggles to find out who is really is, he begins to unravel the city's secrets, and his own — trying to answer the riddles of the "strangers" and their "tuning" power, and why everyone in the city falls asleep at once, except him.
Dark City disappointed at the box office — maybe not a surprise given its thought-provoking and at times difficult storyline — but it is an underrated jewel that already has attracted a cult following. That growing fan base is understandable, as this is a film that must be seen to be truly enjoyed and appreciated, and one that impresses more and more with each repeated viewing.
Video and Audio:
The widescreen video holds up well under the burden of Dark City's many magnificent visuals. The film is extremely heavy on the dark colors and blacks, and for the most part the non-anamorphic transfer holds up very well. Only a few scenes toward the end fall victim to digital noise despite 90% of the film taking place in the gloom and mist that pervade the city.
The few bright scenes are handled well, reflecting the film's bold colors and bright lights.
There is also a full-screen version available on the flip side of the dual-side/single-layer disc.
The 5.1 surround is solid but unexceptional. The film lacks any "showoff" scenes as far as the soundtrack is concerned, but the mix does well with what there is. Voices are strong, particularly important given Sutherland's rasping Dr. Schreber, Connolly's husky singing and Sewell's and Hurt's low-key vocals. In many ways, the mix is unmemorable — but that can be a good thing, as the audio never takes away from the imagery on screen.
There is also a French Dolby 5.1 track. English, French and Spanish subtitles are available.
The highlight extra is an audio commentary by film critic Roger Ebert. Love him or hate him, what cannot be disputed is that he is one of America's best-known and most influential critics. And his participation is hardly an everyday occurrence. Over the course of DVD's short history, Ebert has recorded commentary tracks for exactly two films: Dark City and Citizen Kane. So without even hearing a word, it is obvious that he holds the film (his first commentary) in high regard.
The filmmaker's commentary gets second billing to Ebert's, with participants including director Alex Proyas, writers Lem Dobbs and David Goyer, director of photography Dariusz Wolski and production designer Patrick Tatopoulos. This commentary is more technical and, despite plenty of interesting information, not nearly as engaging as Ebert's. It also suffers from too many voices (apparently recorded separately and edited together), making for some confusion despite Ebert being there to identify participants.
The other extras are less impressive. One highlight for those who love the film's imagery is the too-brief gallery of sketches of various characters, costumes, scenes and other ideas. Several are quite beautiful, as could be expected, but the gallery on the whole disappoints in its brevity.
There also are two text-only essay sections, one called "The Metropolis Comparison" and the other by comic book artist Neil Gaiman. The Metropolis essay, broken down into three parts, is a summary of the 1920s film and excerpts from a pair of quite critical reviews. The point of this is hard to determine — apparently readers must make their own comparison — but one guess is that this is a kind of response to Dark City's failure to find much box-office success, a sort of "See, this imaginative film waivers."
In the "standard extras" vein, the film's theatrical trailer is shown in a widescreen ratio of approx. 1.66:1. The trailer is a nice one, which doesn't tell much about the film, but certainly captures its imagery and tone.
Cast and crew biographies and filmographies also are included.
The last extra is the strange "To Shell Beach" game, which has to be one of the most frustrating and pointless add-ons around. Players must click through a few pictures that are far too wide-spread among the various menus, and the reward is an odd little animated-type sequence that lasts only a few seconds.
One disappointment of note is that many of the text-based extras contain typos and grammatical errors. While a mistake here and there is no doubt unavoidable, the sheer number detracts somewhat from the level of professionalism and polish on an otherwise terrific disc.
|Movie:||– A marvel of visual achievement with an atmosphere to match its picture.|
|Video:||– Top-notch transfer marred by a few late flaws and a lack of anamorphic capability.|
|Audio:||– The film offers little chance to show off sound systems, but the 5.1 track is more than capable.|
|Features:||–Two commentaries truly make this a "special edition" disc, but the rest of the extras are throwaways.|
|Overall:||– A haunting film that uses DVD's capabilities to showcase its beauty.|
Dark City is a vastly underrated film and a true feast for the eyes. The DVD, one of the earlier New Line efforts, provides the most important feature for any film, and particularly this one: Strong video and outstanding audio. The two commentaries are icing on the cake for fans and make this disc a worthy member of the "Platinum Series" family.
(Reviewed in June/July 2002 on a Panasonic 27" TV with a Sony DVP-CX850D DVD player and Bose Lifestyle 25 Series II speakers.)