Dark City (1998)

dark city

“I am a doctor. Now, you must listen to me. You have lost your memory. There was an experiment. Something went wrong. Your memory was erased. Do you understand me?”

Deneb’s rating: I’d say this is a very good film – but that might just be what the Strangers want me to think…

Deneb’s review: As a writer in general and a reviewer in particular, I try hard not to repeat myself. There are few surer signs of slipshod writing than constant repetition – not, mind you, through any sort of conscious stylistic effort, where it can be effective, but simply through sheer laziness and lack of proofreading. I pick up on these things when I read them, and I’m sure others do, too – hence my efforts to avoid such a state.

However, there are certain words, phrases and descriptions that, to my regret, I have been unable to avoid repeating in my reviews so far. One of which would be “difficult to categorize”, or variants of such. I don’t really see any way to avoid this – this is, after all, a cult movie site, and cult movies specialize in the odd and unidentifiable. Inevitably, one must confront the fact that one simply doesn’t know what to call something – and if you review many of said somethings, you will find yourself doing so a number of times.

Let us take, for example, Dark City, the object of my attentions today. What to call this film? Is it science fiction? Most certainly, but then there’s the noir aspect. Does that make it count as film noir? Sort of, except then there’s all that science fiction. Is it a thriller, perhaps, or a horror film? It has some of those elements, yes, but then the eye is distracted by all those other genres waving their hands and clamoring for attention…

Oh, it’s a mess. But it’s a good mess, so I ain’t complainin’.

Dark City is set in, well, a dark city. It’s never named, it probably doesn’t have a name. It’s a teeming metropolis stocked with men in fedoras and overcoats, cabbies in flat caps with cigar stubs clenched in their teeth, automats and subways and dime-store museums. Sometime, therefore, in the collective past – who knows when, just not now. And not daytime. It never seems to be daytime.

In a cheap hotel room, a man (Rufus Sewell) awakens naked in a bathtub. The poor fella’s got amnesia – he can’t remember a thing about who he is or why he’s there. On top of this, there’s a dead prostitute in his room, a bloody knife beside her, and a phone ringing with an anxious voice on the other end – a voice telling him to for Pete’s sake get out right now; there are men coming up to his room and he does not want to be there when they arrive.

All this would be bad enough, but things are just getting started. The amnesiac quickly discovers that his name is John Murdoch, and that he might – might, mind you – have murdered that girl, along with five others. Either way, he’s a suspect, and the cops are after him. The only clue he has to his past life is a postcard from somewhere called Shell Beach, a place that nobody seems to know where to find. And that’s still not the worst of it. In fact, it’s just getting started. In fact, “getting started” barely covers it. In fact, it’s worth less than half of the first letter of the first word of the statement “just getting started”. It’s worth about a quarter J, that’s what it is, compared to the rest of the almighty mess he’s in.

You see, those men who were coming to get him? They’re not the cops. They’re called the Strangers, insofar as they’re called anything, and they are creepy individuals. They are bald as eggs, pale as vampires, make unnerving sounds when they get agitated, and are quite obviously not human. And they have plans for the inhabitants of the city – strange and sinister plans.

Every night, at the stroke of twelve, the city stops. Cars stop. Trains stop. People stop – they pass out and fall to the ground, or sit slumped in their seats. And while they are passed out, the Strangers come out and go about their work. And the city changes, and the people with it.

Nobody, of course, knows about any of this, since they’re all passed out while it happens. Well, almost all. One exception is Murdoch himself – he’s somehow immune to the Strangers’ go-to-sleep hoodoo. Problem is, the Strangers know this, and they’re not happy about it at all – it upsets their orderly little system. Now they’re out to get him, and thus, he’s in one of the prettiest pickles any man could possibly conceive of. You could enter it in a beauty contest, so pretty is this pickle he’s in.

How, then, is he to beat these pallid pilgarlics?  Well, he does have an ace or two up his sleeve. First, there’s the other man who does not fall asleep at the Strangers’ bidding – one Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland). He’s their catspaw, and helps them on their midnight excursions. He’s also the voice on the other end of the phone, and hence the one man who may be able to help our hero out – maybe.

Second, there’s more than one reason that the Strangers want Murdoch under wraps. This city-changing process of theirs has a name – it’s called “Tuning”. And Murdoch, somehow, has also developed the ability to Tune. It’s in its nascent stages, mind you, but it might just be the key to everything – assuming he can figure out how to use it before it’s too late.

Will he find a solution to his problems before the baldy baddies track him down, assuming the cops don’t beat them to it? Will he ever find Shell Beach? And did he really kill those women? And just what is the secret of the city? Watch and learn, ‘cause I ain’t gonna tell ya.

The first word that springs to mind regarding Dark City (with me, anyway) would be “unique”. Oh, sure, there are plenty of other, more descriptive words that could be applied, but it has a uniqueness of tone and look that make it a distinctive movie indeed. Mind you, there are influences on it – plenty of ‘em – but it itself rises above them to become its own immediately identifiable entity. Every single frame of this movie, taken out of context, is immediately recognizable, and impossible (or, at any rate, very difficult) to mistake for a scene from any other film. That is a rare quality, and should be mentioned first.

That being said, how best to describe Dark City? Well, “dark”, of course, immediately springs to mind, but a better term would be “shadowy”. There are endless shadows in a place where daylight never comes, and they hide a multitude of secrets, secrets that the film itself is stingy about giving out (with one rather notable and regrettable exception – but I’ll get to that later). Some of them are never explained, but they don’t have to be – they’re the ones that are beside the point. Everything that needs to be explained is done so, unpeeling like an onion until what’s needed is revealed, and what isn’t isn’t. It may not satisfy your inner nit-picker, but then, what would?

The city in question is a masterful piece of set design, a place where gloom seems to seep from the very walls. The vintage atmosphere was a good idea, because it makes for a feeling that we do and do not know this place at the same time – we recognize the trappings it wears, but it itself is alien to us. It’s difficult to imagine becoming nostalgic about this burg, even if nostalgia is to some degree its foundation – it’d be an interesting place to visit, but who’d want to live there?

Well, no one – but some people do, obviously, and that is where we get our protagonists. (Note the flawless segue.)

And an interesting bunch they are. Rufus Sewell was an unusual choice to play Murdoch, since he’s not at all your typical leading man – he’s good-looking enough, but he has one of those faces that Hollywood usually casts as jealous boyfriends or slimy conmen. It was a good decision, though, as this raises further doubt in our minds as to whether or not he did kill those hookers – he looks like the sort who would, after all. Character-wise, he’s pretty much the usual confused everyman who just wants to know what’s going on, but he makes it work pretty well.

In supporting roles, we have Jennifer Connelly as Emma, Murdoch’s confused wife (who does not have amnesia, and is not sure what to believe regarding her husband’s guilt), and William Hurt as Inspector Bumstead, the cop who’s been assigned to his case. They do passable jobs in their roles – Connelly is basically just there to be beautiful and sympathetic and provide a romantic interest, and Hurt is good as always, but his character winds up being fairly peripheral. (He does wind up getting involved in things to a fair degree, but ultimately you could excise his character entirely, and with a little tweaking, the story would still work fine.) The major standout here, though, is Sutherland’s bizarre performance as Dr. Schreber, a limping, twitching, blinking little man who seems to be constantly in the middle of an extended flinch. He speaks in a series of breathless gasps and pauses that give one the impression that he’s about to keel over from sheer nervousness. He’s the one man in the whole city who really knows what’s going on, and clearly the knowledge has not been kind to him.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about that knowledge – or rather, its source, the Strangers. They are without doubt some of the creepiest, most unique antagonists I’ve ever seen. Whether lurking in their dimly-lit, corroded lair or slinking around the streets of the city in their long coats and hats, they leave an indelible impression on your mind. Moreover, note that I said “antagonists” rather than “villains”. There is a reason for this – despite appearances, they are not actually evil, merely misguided. They have what seem to them perfectly good reasons for what they do, and they seem genuinely frightened and disturbed when their plans are disrupted. Most of the more typically villainous actions are performed by their main operative, Mr. Hand (Richard O’Brien), and those are mainly due to… outside influences, let us say. I would like to say more, since he’s really a rather fascinating character in his own right, but I can’t in good conscience without giving things away. (Of course, there’s also Mr. Sleep, but I don’t want to think about Mr. Sleep. Brr.)

So as you can probably tell, I really dig this movie. I’m the first to admit, though, that it has flaws – not many, but they’re there. The main one would be a studio-mandated voiceover from Sutherland at the very beginning that gives away a heaping chunk of plot for no good reason. I mean, every single thing in it is explained perfectly well later on, but no – they had to spoon-feed it to us before we’d even gotten a chance to see the opening shot. It’s like watching The Wizard of Oz and having Dorothy explain to all of us over the opening credits that she’s about to get bonked on the head and have a dream – it’s both jarring and pointless. It was a really stupid decision on the studio’s part, and most fans of the movie apparently prefer to watch the first couple minutes of it on mute. The director’s cut version apparently excises this, and while I haven’t seen it, that’s as good a reason as any to recommend it to you.

But all that’s minor stuff. You don’t watch movies for the blunders they make (well, I don’t, anyway), you watch them for their successes, and Dark City is very, very successful. It’s a total mind-trip from start to finish, a dark fable that makes you think while keeping you entertained. It looks amazing, the story’s nifty and thought-provoking, the characters are… not the world’s most complex, but they work well. It’s just generally cool. Basically, if you’re in the mood for a ripe-with-paranoia sci-fi/noir/thriller/horror flick, this here’s your puppy.

And if you happen to be taking an evening stroll afterwards and see a group of creepy bald men in coats and hats following you, well… walk faster.

Justin’s rating: A sleeper hit for New Line

Justin’s review: Avid fans of this page might remember that I nominated Dark City as the best new cult film of 1998 — and for good reason. This overlooked classic harkens us back to the Twilight Zone days of television, where we were drawn into a mystery and not pandered to like ignorant savages. The film opens in a peculiar fashion, and the audience is not quite sure where they are, what’s going on, or even what genre this film is. From then on, it’s a twisting mystery/adventure for both us and the main character, an amnesiatic man who’s on the run from Pinhead-lookin’ strangers (called, brilliantly, “Strangers”).

As smart as the film is, I feel it did condescend a bit (I point to the unnecessary opening monologue, by Keifer Sutherland’s Dr. Shreber). Even though I dislike William Hurt for his “I don’t have the energy to show emotion” atmosphere, it did play well into his part. Kinda reminded me of Ed Harris.

One of the best things I love about this film is its mix of a film noir world and science fiction. Now there’s a combination you don’t see every day! The city is meticulously designed for an older, mid-30s look (complete with Automats, anachronisms, and subways). Batman would feel right at home in this town. All the elements of film noir are apparent: the troubled protagonist (Murdoch), the femme fatale (Jennifer Connelly), and the Joe Friday detective (William Hurt). However, as the plot unravels we realize that this is all a cover for a larger plot involving telekinetics, aliens, and some spectacular CGI sequences with buildings morphing.

The camera angles are varied and intriguing, keeping the audience off-tilt from their regular expectations. One of the best features of Dark City is its incredible rewatchability value; there’s literally thousands of details to watch for and scenes to pick apart.

If nothing else, Dark City is a meticulously crafted world that sparks the imagination to roll long after the credits are through. Few films in our time dare to create an entirely new world to explore, and I congratulate the makers of this one for their endeavors.

Kyle’s rating: Not enough Jennifer Connelly high-octane action!

Kyle’s rating: Ah, the joys of digital cable. Not only do you get 300,000 sports and nature channels (fun) but you also get a whole lot of movie channels and their derivatives (loads of fun!). Romance, mystery, independent film, science-fiction, western, Chicago cutlery… all types of movie channels with all types of movies at all times of day! Perfect for any insomniac’s viewing needs. So why is there never anything good on?

Case in point: Dark City, which I was led to believe was a “good” movie. I am aware that lots and lots of people like, even love, this film. I was at a sci-fi convention (yes, I am a loser) and when a emcee asked the main events audience what they thought of Dark City, the hundreds of freaks sitting around me screamed and yelled their little larynxes out. I had foolishly assumed theirs were screeches of joy, so when I recently found myself adhered to my couch for the weekend I saw Dark City was about to start so I decided to give it a whirl. Finally I would see the film so many unwashed miscreants had so loudly recommended.

Ten minutes in, I too was howling. Not only had I shifted on the couch resulting in the universal remote jabbing painfully into my precious right kidney, but Dark City was turning out to be the worst movie I had seen since I sat through Quiz Show at Westminster Mall. “Ow!” I cried “Dark City is such a letdown that it’s hurting me physically! I have a sharp pain in my kidney!”

What is Dark City about? About an hour and 40 minutes too long. Heh. Uh, Rufus Sewell is this dude who awakens in a hotel with no memory of who he is or where he is. However, we the audience quickly learn that by releasing a stream of clear Scrubbing Bubbles from his head, Rufus can manipulate and change reality. Or something. Dialogue, William Hurt grunting words, and lots and lots of things that are dark and wet are seen. They really should have called this movie Dark City.

Who is Rufus? What is the Scrubbing Bubbles effect? Who are the floating pale dudes in trenchcoats with really cool metal knives the likes of which haven’t been seen since Dead Ringers? What is this (insert expletives of choice here) movie? Who loves the sun, and where the heck is it? Questions, all of these are, yes? I am Yoda. But the most important questions of all: how come Jennifer Connelly has only been in two really really cool movies (Phenomena and The Rocketeer) and a load of stinkers? Why wasn’t Jennifer Connelly the Scrubbing Bubbles-releasing heroine of Dark City? Why did I watch Dark City instead of getting up and putting Tron in the VCR? And what is with my kidney!?!

Dark City is a dark science-fiction movie, and if you have cable and nothing else to do go ahead and watch it. I can’t stop you. I would not will not watch this again, I shall not should not watch it with a hen. But if I had the power of Scrubbing Bubbles at my command, watch out! Jennifer Connelly would be Wonder Woman, Bruce Campbell would be Batman, and I would rule all creation with Grant Morrison as my second-in-command. Then we’d see if films like Dark City would be produced. Yes, that will be the day!

DnaError’s rating: It sure is dark in this here city.

DnaError’s review: This was the first DVD I ever owned. The movie stands proud as the first child of my growing obsession. Why Dark City? Well, it was on sale, and ever since I caught it on TV one night, I knew I had to own it.

It was like an episode of the Outer Limits given a huge budget and feature running time. The mystery of the Strangers, the film noir feel (right down to the lounge singer and anarchistic insults). I had a ball pointing the different styles, Deco! Nouveo! Moderne! until I had to be forcibly quieted. It contained shades of Metropolis, Blade Runner, Invasion of the Pod People, and Tim Burton. I wanted to own it so I could visit this strange, dark universe whenever I wanted.

The DVD goes all out, from two commentaries and really cool menus. (The back has all the features ending with an “!” no one is that excited about fullscreen.) The visuals are crisp and audio clear. Flawless? No. Jennifer Connelly has the acting skills of a blind mollusk. William Hurt looked more bored then anything. Once you know the ending… getting to it can be tedious.

It *is* style over substance, unlike Blade Runner, it doesn’t have the cajones to pull off The Big Questions, settling on more weird imagery. And after about an hour the movie just collapses in on itself, getting to a rushed ending that isn’t so much surprising as bizarre. But for sheer visual bravado and injecting some much needed imagination into sci-fi and movies in general.

“…And we’ll put the couch over here, and the potted plant over… Simpkins! Are you listening? Well, good. Redecorating is a tricky business, and it requires planning! Now then, as for the table, I’m thinking one of those round dealies, but I’m open to suggestions…”


  • This movie has a long and complicated history regarding its name. It was apparently named Dark City from the beginning, but when it came time to release it in theatres, Warner Bros. objected, due to the fact that they had another movie about to be released called Mad City, and they didn’t want audiences to confuse the two. After a bit of thought, they changed the name to ‘Dark World’, but this caused Steven Spielberg to object, as his movie Lost World was also about to hit theaters. Finally, they came up with ‘Dark Empire’, but this time Lucasfilm got in a snit, as they had apparently licensed the word ‘Empire’ for The Empire Strikes Back, and would not allow anyone else to use it in a film title. By this time, Mad City had already been released, and was not the hit Warner Bros. had been hoping for, so they just went ahead and released the film under its original name.
  • The role of Mr. Sleep was performed by Satya and Noah Gumbert, a brother and sister. They were apparently big Rocky Horror fans, and were in awe of getting to work with Richard O’Brien, who would entertain them between takes.
  • Roger Ebert loves this film. He rates it among his top ten films of all time, and provided one of the commentary tracks for the DVD.
  • Sutherland’s character, Dr. Daniel Schreber, is named after the author of ‘Memoirs of my Nervous Illness’, an account of his time spend institutionalized for schizophrenia which greatly influenced the work of both Freud and Jung. If you know the book, there are apparently many direct parallels to it in the film.
  • The Matrix is often accused of ripping this movie off. I’m not sure to what degree that’s true, but the two movies came out only a year apart, and there are certainly some startling similarities between them. Again, I can’t go into detail without ruining one or both movies, but watch the two back-to-back and see for yourself.
  • Theme of spirals and mazes
  • At the beginning of the film, there is a brief shot of the movie theatre which says “Now Showing, The Evil, Late Show Nightly” and to the right, “Coming Attractions, Book of Dreams” (a previous film by Alex Proyas). At the end of the movie the marquee still says “Book of Dreams” is coming soon, even though the theater and marquee have changed.
  • At the beginning of the movie, the number of John Murdoch’s motel room is 614. In the Bible, John 6:14 refers to the coming of the savior.
  • Sets from this film, including rooftops, buildings and others exteriors, were reused when filming The Matrix.
  • Murdoch’s bathwater at the beginning of the film is cloudy, almost milky. When he puts the goldfish into the bathtub it is crystal clear.

Groovy Quotes:

Dr. Schreber: I am a doctor. Now, you must listen to me. You have lost your memory. There was an experiment. Something went wrong. Your memory was erased. Do you understand me?

Mr. Hand: Mr. Murdoch, yes. Where is he?

John Murdoch: I know this is gonna sound crazy – but what if we never knew each other before now? What if the first time we ever met was last night in your – in our apartment, and everything that you remember, and everything that I’m supposed to remember never really happened? Someone just wants us to think it did.

Mr. Hand: (repeated line) Sleep now.

Dr. Schreber: Wherever your husband is, he is searching… for himself.

Mr. Book: Let the Tuning commence.

Bumstead: Give the man an ‘A’ for effort.

Walenski: They’re watchin’ us! There’s no way out!

Mr. Book: Is it done?
Mr. Hand: Oh yes, Mr. Book. I have John Murdoch… in mind.

Dr. Shreber: ‘The rich get richer’. Probably have maid’s quarters before the night is through.

Mr. Hand: Leave me alone with her. There’s work to be done.

Bumstead: I’m being punished for my sins, right?

Mr. Hand: Come, Dr. Schreber. We have much to do, yes.
Dr. Schreber: Yes.

John Murdoch: How do you know I’m not the killer?
May: You don’t seem like the killer type. Why? You feeling any urges I should know about?

Dr. Schreber: The only place home exists is in your head.

Mr. Wall: We will give you some more pretty things soon, Anna.
Emma: I’m not Anna.
Mr. Wall: You will be soon, yes.

John Murdoch: I feel like I’m livin’ out someone else’s nightmare.

Mr. Hand: So it seems you’ve discovered your unpleasant nature.

Dr. Schreber: Maybe you have finally found what you are looking for – and it’s going to bite you on your…

Unnamed Stranger #1: And Mr. Quick?
Mr. Wall: No more Mr. Quick! Mr. Quick dead, yes.
Unnamed Stranger #2: Poor, poor Mr. Quick!

Mr. Hand: Karl. Uncle Karl. Haven’t seen you in so long. Yes.

Dr. Schreber: You are confused, aren’t you? Frightened. That’s all right. I can help you.

Hasselbek: Everything Detective Walenski committed to paper should be here.
Bumstead: The only thing that should be committed is Walenski.

Automat Worker: You left your wallet here, buddy.
John Murdoch: When, when did I do that?
Automat Worker: When you was last here.
John Murdoch: When was that?
Automat Worker: When you left your wallet.

Bumstead: No one ever listens to me.

Mr. Hand: Mr. Murdoch. You’ve been the cause of much distress.

Emma: I love you, John. You can’t fake something like that.

Mr. Book: Shut it down! Shut it down forever!

John Murdoch: Who are you?
Mr. Hand: We might ask the same question, yes.

Dr. Schreber: These do bring back memories. This one is still warm. What is it? The recollections of a great lover? A catalogue of conquests? We will soon find out. You wouldn’t appreciate that, would you, Mr. Whatever-your-name-is? Not the sort of conquests you would ever understand.

Mr. Hand: I have become the monster you were intended to be.

Walenski: There is no case! There never was! It’s all just a big joke! It’s a joke!

Dr. Schreber: You will survive, John. You will find strength within yourself – and you will prevail.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Metropolis
  • The City of Lost Children
  • The Matrix


  1. The director’s cut does indeed get rid of that pesky narration (oh, how glad I am I came in a little late when I saw the movie the first time!) and also adds a couple of neat scenes to boot.

    • Well, good to know. It’s on my short list of movies to see someday, right alongside the Director’s Cut of ‘The Abyss’.

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