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DARK CITY: DIRECTOR'S CUT
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt
Director:  Alex Proyas
Audio:  DTS HD 7.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  New Line
Features:  See Review
Length:  111 Minutes
Release Date:  July 29, 2008

“When was the last time you remember doing something during the day?”

Film ****

Dark City is a work of unbridled imagination grounded only in honest humanity.  In fact, that humanity is what makes the picture a truly great film.  Without it, it could have still been one of the most visionary films of recent memory, but with it, there is an emotional and philosophical foundation that supports the entire incredible notion.

It was the brainchild of writer/director Alex Proyas, who unleashed a scientific vision so detailed, so vivid, so perfect that it’s become something of a cult favorite and was named by no less than Roger Ebert as the best movie of 1998.  Ten years later, Proyas has returned with a director’s cut.  Sometimes the notion of such a cut makes me cautious, especially when it’s a film I loved as much as this one.  How can you improve upon perfection?

The answer is simply to make perfection more perfect.  Proyas’ original ideas, which were mostly to play the film with cards close to the vest and slowly reveal the secrets until the monumental moment of revelation, was decidedly the right choice.  At the time, studios were afraid of confusing the audience, so some crucial elements were revealed up front in the form of voiceover narration by Dr. Daniel Schreber (Sutherland).

That is now gone.  We simply plunge right into a mystery, as John Murdock (Sewell) awakes in a hotel bathtub.  His memory is gone.  A phone call from Dr. Schreber tells him his memory was accidentally erased in an experiment.  There are people coming for him.  He has to leave right away.  But before he goes, John notices something else…a dead girl whose body has been intricately carved.  There is a bloody knife.  Did he do it?

The investigating cop named Bumstead (Hurt) seems to think so, and so John, with no memory and no direction, begins to try and piece himself together.  One person who might be able to help him is his estranged wife Emma (Connelly).  He doesn’t remember her or the fight they had that sent John packing, but she may be his first and last hope.

Yes, there are people looking for John, and not just the cops.  A collection of darkly clad pale skinned “strangers”, who demonstrate an ability to control those around them, want John back.  Their intended experiment went wrong, but in going awry, they may have found something else entirely.  The one thing they’ve been looking for.

I want to be vague in case some readers haven’t seen the film before.  I wouldn’t want to deprive them of any of the glorious surprises I experienced on my first viewing, and trust me, I haven’t touched on any of them.  In this director’s cut, which I’d recommend even to first-time viewers, the revelations come gradually, and the payoff is one of the most rock-you-back-in-your-seat moments of the last decade, if not longer.

Dark City is many things, one of which is an absolute triumph of set and art direction.  Proyas’ city is a marvel of intricate mixed-period architecture.  Some buildings seem modern, some seem early 20th century, but they all seem compacted close together as though the town itself were a maze waiting to unravel.  It’s also a work of amazing cinematography.  As suggested by the title, virtually the whole movie is dark, and I’ve rarely seen darkness photographed so beautifully or intricately. 

But the real heart is the story.  The best science fiction always gives us fantasy with basic human truths at its core.  The core of Dark City is the question of what makes us human.  Are we nothing more than the sum total of our memories and experiences?  Or is there something more…a soul perhaps?…that remains even when our minds have betrayed us.

Rarely has a film so successfully blended the utterly fantastic with such thoughtful explorations of the basic human condition.  But don’t get the wrong impression.  Dark City is not some movie version of a philosophy textbook.  This is a full-out entertainment spectacle; a special effects extravaganza, a suspenseful drama, a love story and an action film rolled into one.

Alex Proyas has many horses going at once, but when a director can successfully mount several steeds at once and keep them all going in the same direction toward a clearly defined purpose, you have nothing short of a masterpiece.  Which for me, Roger Ebert and many other dedicated fans, Dark City unquestionably is.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Among other differences, in the director's cut, Jennifer Connelly does her own singing, whereas it was dubbed before.

Video ****

I’m almost speechless.  I had high hopes for this movie on Blu-ray, and not only was a not disappointed, I was absolutely enthralled.  With nothing but darkness for most of the scenario, this is a film that could have easily collapsed into murkiness, but high-definition brings out the best.  I’ve never seen a dark movie look so good.  Colors are still vibrant, details are vivid, and contrast of lighter sources against the darkness demonstrate all of what this technology is capable of.  So far, this gets my vote for best video quality of the year.

Audio ****

Likewise, the uncompressed DTS audio is a revelation.  Forceful and dynamic, filled with subtleties and intensity, this is an immersive listening experience from beginning to end.  The action sequences open up a loud and expansive audio field, and the quieter moments add to the suspense beautifully.

Features ****

The extras are more than generous.  In addition to the two cuts of the film, you get specific extras for each version.  The theatrical presentation features the original commentary tracks from Roger Ebert (a great listen from a fan’s point of view) and the group commentary with Alex Proyas and co-writers Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer and crew (a great listen from a student’s point of view).  The extended cut has new comments from Goyas and each of his writers separately, as well as new thoughts from Ebert.  On Blu-ray, you can even access a special pop-up track that compares the director’s cut to the theatrical version so you know exactly where and what the changes are.  It also gives bonus trivia facts as the movie plays.

There are three new documentaries reflecting back on the making of the movie and the new cut, featuring Proyas, Dobbs, Goyer, Ebert and others.  You can watch them separately or all at once.  There are text essays, production galleries, a trailer, and Neil Gaiman’s original review of the film.  The menu screens are also very well designed.

Summary:

Dark City is easily one of the greatest films of the last ten years, and this director’s cut shows how a masterpiece can be made even more masterful.  For both newcomers and longtime fans, this Blu-ray disc represents an absolute apex of the medium and a real treat.

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