February 28, 1998 [Dark City]

Everyone will say that it looks like a homage to Metropolis; but Dark City exerts its own pull, draws me like gravity.  And its debt to a dizzy cavalcade of sources--from Twilight Zone to Philip K. Dick, from Nosferatu to E.C. horror comics, and onward through film noir and the many odd corners of half-remembered SF short stories that swim in and out of the periphery--is not merely great, but ably repaid. Again, though, Dark City remains its own self, a particular moment, an indulgence in magnificent fertility pendant from the branch like a black pomegranate, bitter but irresistible.

I cannot turn away from Kiefer Sutherland's Peter Lorre-esque mad scientist, stricken and impish, pathetic and horrible. I almost wish he were the protagonist. But that would involve the loss of John Murdoch--a little lost himself but tuning the tuners, his beautiful eyes swimming in their blue, up and out of the multiple blank lives the Strangers have given him. And Inspector Bumstead, a man struggling to rise from sleep, too much of a--well, Inspector--to give in to the temptation to live in a dream. Even Jennifer Connolly--my favorite non-screaming scream queen--knows how to tilt her head downward like Bacall and look up at you so that she doesn't have to insist, you're in love with her anyway. And maybe most of all the Strangers themselves, animated corpses with spiders in their brains, slouch hats and derbies atop bald and leathery pates, the gliding monster that bears down without the slightest pause.

And beyond that the visual hysterics, splashing around in the film's brave and muddy colors, the simple plot almost incidental to the evocation of a shifting city that should live inside your head, but instead makes you live inside its. With Dark City I’m dreaming again: in that automat, like an old Horn & Hardart brought back from the grave, a narrow sick green neon coffin--and in the tumbling furnished (and re-furnished) apartments, everyone's stuff fingered and filched by the spider-corpses; and at the edge of the city a brick-walled back room where scrapwood leans and the dust settles. It's as if Kafka had written The Trial as SF, and led us to an offworld storage closet where punishment is inexplicably meted out in alien bondage and despair.

But not quite. And I don't mean its triumph-of-the-heart ending--at least not entirely. Because Dark City finds its light in me, sometimes fitful and lurid, sometimes garish and stark, but never quite flickering out. When John visits his uncle's small-time aquarium--the tanks lined along the dark walls, the dusty mounted fish tacked up, forlorn--I felt, soft on the liquid surface of my eyes, the light of a dream I once had of such a place, lost in silence as dim shapes move in the water, one room to the next. And then I realized that I had, perhaps, actually visited such a place, in Atlantic City, I think, at the Steel Pier, where you pay one price and get to see all the attractions, including a small assortment of sea creatures listless behind scratched glass. At least I think it’s there, on a rainy day when we can't go on the beach. I must admit, then, that this is where the movie leads me, to "shadowy recollections" and mingled discomfort and relief as they recede. Dark City's promise of a bright sunrise leads to a satisfying height, but what remains with me afterward is the play of slanting light in those dark streets and rooms, drawing me into a past I can't quite forget--or is that recall?


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