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Alex Proyas' Dark City turns 20

Contributed by
Feb 27, 2018

SLEEP, NOW!

Well, not quite yet! First, kindly consider "tuning" in to this celebratory retrospective on 1998's iconic cult gem Dark City.

Director Alex Proyas' strange and dreamy sci-fi spectacle turns 20 years old today, and it remains a startling shift in the style and tone of genre films that would be further reinforced in the following year's other hip, alt-reality opus, The Matrix.

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After two decades, Dark City still stands steadily upon its dystopian visuals, crime thriller procedural, and hard-boiled detective foundation, where a reality-manipulating humanoid alien race strives to discern the true nature of mankind. It's a self-contained metaphysical masterpiece, which absolutely holds up upon repeat viewings, and invites heated debate on the intriguing notions of memory theory and personal identity.

Before Neo and Morpheus made slick black leather robes ultra-cool, it was Dark City that kicked it all off. This somber classic caught audiences off guard by presenting an unsettling tale of hive-minded extraterrestrials called the Strangers attempting to save their dying race by interchanging the memories of an experimental test group and then studying the consequences.

Shot in Australia and dropped into theaters without much fanfare or confidence by New Line Cinema on February 27, 1998, executives were paranoid that audiences wouldn't understand Dark City's sophisticated existential themes. It was released with a lame voice-over that totally destroys the initial mystery, and by the end of its cinematic run, barely managed to collect back its $27 million budget. A 2008 Director's Cut removes the nonsense and restores Proyas' intended vision.

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Using a mind-warping, neo-noir screenplay co-written by David Goyer; spectacular set design by Patrick Tatopoulos; a decidedly diverse soundtrack; and effective performances by Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show's Richard O'Brien, Dark City ignited a latent appetite for a new breed of cerebral, turn-of-the-century genre movies.

It's a thought-provoking version of Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" with human test subjects trapped in an artificial laboratory while the eternal questions on the malleability of memory, the persistence of love transcending all, and our innate ability to shape our destinies all intertwine in an amazing exercise in German Expressionism amid the cosmos.

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Dark City may not have received the initial accolades bestowed upon other geek classics, but its fingerprints can be readily seen in Christopher Nolan's Inception, Ridley Scott's Prometheus, the black-suited Observers in J.J. Abrams' Fringe, and especially in HBO's wild A.I. theme park series, Westworld.

This highly influential, underrated film deserves to be recognized on its 20th anniversary, so try to remember the way to Shell Beach and recall the awesome majesty of Dark City with these four important reasons why below. Let The Tuning Commence!

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1. DARIUSZ WOLSKI'S HAUNTING CINEMATOGRAPHY

Don't worry, it's okay to gush over the gorgeous visuals on display in Dark City. Working within some of the most imaginative set designs conceived to date, Wolski finds a stark post-World War II sensibility in his dimly lit frames and comes up with a certain scintillating color saturation to highlight this nightmarish midnight reality and Underworld lair.

Besides first teaming up with Proyas in 1994's The Crow, Wolski is also well known for his camerawork in Ridley Scott's The Martian, Prometheus, and Alien: Covenant, Tony Scott's Crimson Tide, and four Pirates of the Caribbean movies for Disney. The interplay of light and shadow exhibited by the Polish cinematographer's voyeuristic lens results in an incredible depth of texture that welds itself to Dark City's tight storytelling and memorable performances.

2. IMMERSE YOURSELF IN THE MUSIC

Dark City has one of the most awesome '90s scores and soundtracks since Mortal Kombat! An absorbing blend of ominous ambient synthesizer tracks, rousing orchestral interludes, catchy techno-pop tunes, and simmering night club torch songs, this ambitious sci-fi soundscape has something for everyone's aural fantasies.

Composer Trevor Jones (Labyrinth,The Dark Crystal, From Hell) creates a handful of brooding modern pieces that resonate with jarring fury and a sweeping sinister undertone. Plus it's got atmospheric transitional selections woven into the labyrinthine plot and song tracks like Gary Numan's Dark, Echo and the Bunnymen's Just a Touch Away, and Anita Kelsey's sultry cover of Sway. This sensational score needs a deluxe vinyl remaster badly!

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3. IT'S GOYER'S BEST SCREENPLAY!

Before David Goyer went on to become Hollywood's Prince of Darkness with his grim superhero scripts for the Blade Trilogy, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Trilogy, Zack Snyder's Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, and SYFY's upcoming Superman prequel series, Krypton, Goyer typed up this phenomenal screenplay with Proyas and Lem Dobbs.

Written with economy, intelligence, and purpose, this is easily one of Goyer's most complete works, and it employs subtle techniques of delivering natural exposition within a well-paced story that feels organic and instinctive. Its sharply developed themes on the nature of the human soul, an individual's search for identity, and the necessity and purpose of memory against a cabal of dying alien overlords were perhaps a bit ahead of their time for audiences of the era, but are thoroughly engaging today.

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4. RICHARD O'BRIEN'S MENACING MR. HAND

With his smooth shaved skull, long black coat, wide-brimmed hat, and steely-eyed inflections, Richard O'Brien's Mr. Hand steals the show amid a talented cast fully invested in the material. Proyas had first thought of casting O'Brien after creating the pale-skinned androgynous alien, and the British actor's turn in The Rocky Horror Picture Show as the manipulative hunchback Riff Raff was foremost on the director's mind.

O'Brien delivers a chilling performance as the tuning extraterrestrial inhabiting the body of a human corpse, and he charismatically centers the film in every frame he appears in. He plays Mr. Hand to perfection, using a careful balance of movement, costume, and a measured, mellifluous voice. Nobody makes basic black look so cool. Marvel could use a multi-layered, intelligent protagonist like O'Brien's Stranger to add a dash of dimension to their tedious roster of supervillains.

What are your memories of Alex Proyas' Dark City? And do you believe it gets the proper respect it deserves?