If you hadn’t noticed, movies tend to come in pairs. For “Armageddon,” there was “Deep Impact.” For “A Bug’s Life,” there was “Antz.” And so on and so on. “Dark City” came out a year before “The Matrix” and also included a reality-twisted plot filled to the brim with vastly powered people in trenchcoats. It also presented its case slightly better than the’ hit, if only because it was not succeeded by two completely sub-par sequels.
Film noir often has a timeless quality, where the film could be set in any decade and still make sense. This is literally true for amnesiac John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell). Not only does he have no memory of who he is, but he’s also pursued by pale, ominous figures in black fedoras and trenchcoats. Murdoch is also chased by his wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly), who is worried about him, along with a detective (William Hurt). But every time Murdoch starts to make progress, the Strangers launch a psychic EMP, rendering everyone in the city except him comatose. They then proceed to fold up and rearrange the city in ways that would “Inception” a run for its money. Facing an adversary with control of reality itself, Murdoch is running out of time, and a mysterious crackpot (Keifer Sutherland) holds all the answers.
Aside from the reality-bending rearrangement of entire city blocks, “Dark City” features more a neo-noir feel than the Kung Fu styling of its more popular brethren. Indeed, everything in this narrative, from amnesiac hero to the ritualistic murder he stumbles upon, would seem right at home in a hard-boiled detective story – omnipotent undead Strangers aside. It’s no wonder “Inception” architect Christoper Nolan cited the film as an influence, along with its other period counterparts like “The Matrix” and “The Thirteenth Floor.”
Perhaps the biggest revelation in this sci-fi film isn’t the story – it’s Keifer Sutherland. Sure, we’ve seen Sutherland in a lot of roles over the years, but whether its the feral vampire leader in “Lost Boys” or the unstoppable Jack Bauer in “24,” he’s always a tough guy one way of another. In “Dark City,” that element is totally removed from his character, leaving instead a sniveling yet ingenious doctor in a far cry from Jack Bauer.
Overall, “Dark City” earns a place as one of the most underrated sci-fi films all times. Fans of “The Matrix” and “Inception” owe it to themselves to give this film a look, if only to see an overlooked vision in what is becoming a budding sub-genre of science fiction all its own.
Own “Dark City” on DVD for $7.13 shipping at Buy.com