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Review: Someone in 'Dark City' needs to lighten up

Scenes from 'Dark City' March 10, 1998
Web posted at: 11:23 p.m. EST (0423 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- I almost feel ridiculous doing it, but before I write my review of "Dark City," I think I should reiterate a painfully obvious rule of thumb that many people apparently lose sight of when reading movie reviews: This is just my personal opinion, folks!

More and more I'm seeing postings on the CNN bulletin board by self-consciously enraged readers who assume that I'm actually trying to tell them what to think about the movies I'm covering. "Dark City" is not now and never will be my particular cup of tea, but I assume there are tons of people out there who will drool over it. My job, however, is to tell you what I thought of the thing, and, boy, am I glad I'm done watching "Dark City."

This is one of those movies that's more concerned with set design motivation than anything that's going on inside the characters' heads. That's a pretty amazing thing when you consider that the plot actually revolves around a bunch of bowler-wearing outer space creepoids called The Strangers who are trying to find a new life for themselves by analyzing the thought processes of an entire futuristic city full of people.

Think of a loud, unimaginably confused (visually as well as narratively) "Brazil" with absolutely no sense of humor, and you'll get the general idea. And, yes, it's dark. The movie feels like it was filmed in a massive walk-in closet. That's only appropriate, I guess. To a large degree, it stars long black overcoats.

That's because of shabby writing (better make that really shabby writing) and the visual scheme's mating of futurism and 1940s film noir. This approach is also swiped from "Brazil," so that means that the only effective elements in the movie are dead lifts.

I'm going to talk about the look of the picture for quite a while before I get around to the actors or the "plot," and for good reason. Director Alex Proyas is far more concerned with Things To Look At, a decidedly 1990s approach to storytelling that dispenses with such niggling concerns as character motivation or plain old common sense. (For more Things To Look At, tune to MTV.)

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The Strangers have the power to put people to sleep instantly, and they do this every night at precisely midnight, with people conking out at work or falling face-first into a bowl of soup during a meal. I'll try not to give away too much of the movie because, frankly, there isn't much to give away and most of it is driven by the need to find out what, if anything, is actually going on.

Suffice it to say that these guys can accomplish amazing things with their minds and are intensely interested in architecture (for reasons that, when they're finally explained, are feeble at best).

So that gives Proyas and his team of technicians the opportunity to make buildings literally shoot up out of the ground like concrete daisies, twisting, turning and bloating to fill the skyline. It happens over and over again, loudly, and, for almost the entire movie, with no real explanation until right near the end.

One of the huge problems with all of this, aside from its purposefully murky reasons for occurring, is that everything is so damn dark. I know a lot of very talented people worked on this, and it must have taken forever to do, but you can hardly see it happening half the time.

There's chunks of concrete and asphalt flying everywhere, and Proyas -- even during the few real dialogue scenes that exist in the movie -- can't hold a shot for more than three seconds before he has to barrel on to the next camera set-up. If he were. Writing this. Review. It would be. Written. Like. This. And you would be. Driven out of your. Skull. Like I was. While. Watching the. Movie.

Now for those characters. Rufus Sewell (who I'm starting to like) plays a guy whose mind can't, for some reason, be controlled by The Strangers. So, when everyone else is in dreamland, he's running around the city with part of his memory missing.

The Strangers have made him think that he's been murdering prostitutes, and this, too, makes no sense during the unfolding of the film, and next-to-no sense when it finally gets explained. I mean, I understood the explanation, but it all boils down to nothing more than a ploy to goose the movie into more violence and special effects shots.

William Hurt is also on hand as the detective who's hunting Sewell. It's emblematic of the film's foolishness that he carries an accordion around with him because it was given to him by his mother. You know, just a sentimental keepsake that fits in with the production design.

We also get Jennifer Connelly as Sewell's long-suffering wife, although, given Connelly's inability to register any particular emotion on her face, she seems more like she's been shot up with Novocain.

Then there's Kiefer Sutherland, who would be a very good actor if he were in a high school play, impersonating Peter Lorre as the mad doctor who helps The Strangers accomplish their bizarre goals. (He's also about 30 years too young for the part.)

If stuff like "Batman and Robin" floats your boat, but you feel smarter when viewing it in a bloody underground comic book context, by all means make a bee-line to see "Dark City."

If, however, you think that even suspense films should contain at least a couple of moments of human beings having sensible conversations with each other, don't bother. There's lots of Alfred Hitchcock at the video store.

"Dark City" is sometimes pretty creepy. There's lots of violence -- stabbings, shootings, heads full of ectoplasm exploding -- and The Strangers have bad teeth. There's a nude prostitute, who, of course, is lit well enough that you can see her. Rated R. 103 minutes.


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