I’m not sure if anything actually goes wrong with Dark City. There’s the significant music problem (Trevor Jones’s score seems more appropriate for a car commercial; it’s missing any subtext or delicacy), but there’s nothing else wrong. The acting is all fantastic–Richard O’Brien gives the best performance, making his evil alien human–and Alex Proyas composes fantastic shots.
The action-packed ending does seem a little off, both in terms of story and direction, I suppose. Proyas seems to be making a loud action picture instead of the quiet, peculiar one he was making a few minutes before. He’s got to visualize super-telepathy and it comes off poorly. Dark City‘s probably filled with references to other films–the one I noticed during the majority of the film was Metropolis, but the end mimics the Krypton destruction from Superman. The tone really doesn’t fit.
But where I wish Proyas had taken more time was with the characters. The last line implies the whole film’s been about characters, but it wasn’t. One of the major reveals (in this director’s cut, anyway… in the original version, there aren’t any reveals) makes the characters having great importance, overall, problematic if not impossible. And the end sort of ignores that condition, even though the end only exists because of that condition.
It’s very confusing… as is the problem of food in the film. No one seems to eat.
Proyas opens Dark City as a Panavision, vividly lighted film noir (or tries to) but there’s clearly something off. He loves the style though, as his introduction of Jennifer Connelly demonstrates. She’s a lounge singer and he goes through great lengths to bring that scene–an absolutely useless one, narratively–in as well as he can. But its narrative superfluousness is almost immediately apparent (Connelly subsequently has a real scene); tight as he is with his direction–until that last fight scene–Proyas is exceptionally loose with the script. He concentrates on the unimportant. There’s one particular scene–O’Brien and Rufus Sewell–where O’Brien tells Sewell his secret and it’s such a bad, expositional, needless line, I sat bewildered for the next thirty seconds.
The film’s very romantic–Sewell and Connelly, William Hurt’s solitary noir detective–but Proyas’s handling of the material is cynical. He’s not interested in the human component, except in minute doses. Sometimes, like O’Brien’s frequent ones, it works. Most times it simply isn’t enough.
Like I said before, all the acting’s good, with Sewell an excellent leading man, Connelly even better when she’s in the lead (but it doesn’t last long, only until Sewell can assume the protagonist role), and Hurt steady. Hurt’s performance is a fully competent, completely assured turn… but he seems the wrong choice for it. Of course he can do the performance, but it’s William Hurt–he can do a lot more. When it’s him and Connelly for the first third, it’s real good. Kiefer Sutherland’s fine as the mad scientist too. But towards the end he sort of becomes the lead character for a while and that approach might have been a better one for Proyas to take.
I haven’t seen Dark City for eight or nine years–about twenty minutes in, I remembered the original DVD was an early reference disc–and I’m not sure I watched it more than once initially. Its epical plot concerns itself so much with providing an intriguing journey–not to mention the visual sumptuousness–there’s something missing in terms of emotional engagement. The acting makes up for some of that absence, but given how often the script works intentionally and directly against such an engagement… it can only do so much.