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Alex Proyas Illuminates DARK CITY at the American Cinemateque
Director flies in from Australia to discuss his science fiction-film noir masterpiece.
By Steve Biodrowski
September 07, 2000
For whatever reason, Dark City
failed to find an audience when it was released in January of 1998, but its reputation and stature has grown over the course of the last two years, thanks in part to the film's release on DVD, accompanied by an audio commentary from film critic Roger Ebert. In any case, the film is an overlooked and underrated masterpiece of science fiction stylings, film noir atmosphere, and paranoid plotting that truly achieves its greatest impact when viewed on the wide cinema screen. We have the American Cinemateque to thank for just such an opportunity, during their First Annual Festival of Fantasy, Horror & Science-Fiction. Not only did they acquire an excellent 35mm scope print from New Line Cinema; they also convinced director Alex Proyas to fly in from Australia to discuss the film after the screening. Proyas answered questions from both the audience and the Cinemateque's Dennis Bartok, along with help from one his co-writers on the film, David Goyer.
For me, the screening was (in an admittedly very small way) something of a personal triumph, in that I was able to win over some new converts to the movie. I had first seen the film at a press screening in 1997, when it was originally scheduled for a fall release. After the debut was pushed back to the following year, I took my wife to see the film at the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, undoubtedly one of the greatest theatres in the world and certainly the perfect place to experience Dark City
My wife fell asleep.
Months later, while browsing through a video store, she saw a snippet of one of the film's mammoth special effects sequences playing on a monitor and decided that Dark City
actually looked rather fun, after all. So the question was: would she want to give the whole movie another chance? On top of that, we had relatives from out of town staying over that weekend. Maybe they would want to go to Disneyland or visit the beach and enjoy the sunny Southern California weather, instead of sitting in a darkened theatre watching a movie they had never heard of. Yet somehow, I talked them into going (I said I had to see it because it was part of my job).
Outside the Egyptian Theatre, I regaled them with tales of other films I had seen at the venerable venue. My biggest memory associated with the locale was seeing Alien
in 1979, because the entire courtyard and lobby was filled with replicas of props from the movie, most prominent of which were numerous alien eggs and the doomed 'space jockey,' designed by H.R. Giger. I really can't think of a better theatre to see that particular movie; sure, the Dome's screen is bigger and better, but you can't beat the atmosphere at the Egyptian.
Of course, the Egyptian isn't quite the same as it used to be. The theatre is still set well back from Hollywood Boulevard, requiring you to reach the box office by walking through the long courtyard, adorned with appropriately ancient-looking decorations. Inside, the pyramid-like theme continues, but it has been slightly obscured by restoration. You see, after the glory days of Hollywood movie palaces, the theatre had long fallen into disrepair; it became a dilapidated second-run discount house and then closed its doors entirely. Fortunately, the American Cinemateque rescued the grand old place from destruction, choosing it as their permanent home after years of vagabond wandering among various screenings rooms. The restoration job installed new speakers, mounted on sliding side panels, which prevent audiences from getting an unobstructed view of the walls and their painted images. The décor is still there; you just have to walk down the side aisles after the movie to see it. I guess it's a small price to pay for keeping the establishment open, and for providing modern Dolby stereophonic sound.
At any rate, we went in, took our seats, and waited for the movie to startwhich it did, twice. As the words of the unnecessary opening narration finished and the camera tilted down off the stars onto the image of Keifer Sutherland, it became obvious that the widescreen movie was being projected without the anamorphic lens on the projector, resulting in a squeezed image that made Sutherland look twice as thin as he should have been. I briefly considered running up to the projection booth, but then I figured, if the director himself is in the audience, let him handle it. Sure enough, after a few seconds, I saw a shadowy figure emerge from the seats on the left side of the theatre (the area usually reserved for special guests), and a moment later the film came to a halt and the lights went up. After a brief interval, the movie started again, this time in full Panavision aspect ratio, and ironically enough, the projectionist had rewound the film to the beginning, so we all got to hear the opening narration twice. (Ironically, because if Alex Proyas had his way, we would never hear it at all.)
Not to keep you in suspenseeveryone I dragged to see the film ended up enjoying it immensely, thanking me for suggesting this particular idea for our weekend outing. The one question asked most prominently was, 'When did this come out?' Apparently, nobody could understand how a movie this good could have come and gone without their noticing. Guess New Line dropped the ball on creating audience awareness for the film.
On the other hand, we cannot totally blame the distributor for not turning the film into a blockbuster. Dark City
was always a truly fascinating piece of weirdness masquerading as a mainstream movie. It takes its time working up audience identification with its amnesiac hero. Meanwhile, the production design and special effects do their best to create a science-fiction film noir cityscape that almost rivals Blade Runner
, and for a time, it seems as if the film will be nothing but an empty exercise in style. These fears are put to rest, as the reasons for the weird look and life of the nameless city are gradually revealed, and the whole thing pays off in a way that is engaging and moving. But for those not patient enough to wait, the film can indeed be frustrating (probably this is why New Line added the opening verbal explanation).
In case you've missed the film: John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes in a hotel room with a murder victim and almost no memory of his life. While trying to determine whether he really is a murderer, he also tracks down his past. But there's the rub: the past he's seeking may not be his real one; in fact, it may be only a fabrication by the Strangers, a mysterious legion who rule, unbeknownst to the populace, from the bowls of the city. Although not a horror film, Dark City
is frightening on a profound level, as the implications of its premise are genuinely disturbing: what is the nature of identity, of who we are, if we cannot trust our own memories? Ultimately, the film offers some sentimental answers; but by the time this happens, appreciative viewers feel so relieved from the oppressive gloom that, rather than quibble, they want to surrender themselves to the uplifting reassurances.
This was certainly the case at the Cinemateque screening. As much fun as seeing a great film is in its own right, seeing it with an appreciative audience magnifies the experiences profoundly. It's a joy to be among like-minded viewers who 'get' what's happening on screenwho laugh at the right moments, cringe when frightened, and applaud with wild enthusiasm to show genuine appreciation of a challenging, ambitious, and artistically successful film.
When it was all over and the lights went up, Dennis Bartok moderated a question-and-answer session with director Alex Proyas and writer David Goyer. Bartok began by asking questions of his own, then threw the conversation open to the audience. Below is a transcript of what was said:
TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE GENESIS AND THE WRITING PROCESSAlex Proyas:
Well, I started working on it, and later brought in David [Goyer] and Lem Dobs. The genesis was really just me pottering away on it for many, many years, as my ability to make it a big-budget kind of film evolved. Really, from there it became a collaborative process with first Lem Dobbs, then David.David Goyer
: I got a call from Alex. He sent me the script. The thing that struck me was that I had had a series of nightmares when I was a child that were very similar to the Strangers, and I remember keying in to that and talking to Alex about that. I'm also kind of an Australia-phile. He said, 'Come to Australia for a couple months, and the studio will stay out of our hair.' It went from there. Then it got very elaborate. Lem came back in, and everybody was rewriting everybody; nobody could remember who had written what scene.Alex Proyas
: It was quite odd when we decided we would all get shared credit on this film, and the WGA kept saying, 'You're sure? You're you don't want to arbitrate this.'David Goyer
: In fact, they did do arbitration. We sent them a letter saying, 'We all agree this should be the credit, in this order.' They said, 'We think there should be an arbitration anyway.' God bless the unions!
THERE ARE A LOT OF IDEAS GOING ON IN THIS FILM ABOUT IDENTITY, BUT AT HEART IT DOES HAVE THE PLOT OF A CLASSIC FILM NOIR: A MAN WAKES UP WITH NO MEMORY AND FEARS THAT HE MAY BE A SERIAL KILLER, AND IT'S AN INVESTIGATION OF WHO HE IS.Alex Proyas:
Yeah, sure, that's really the genesis of the idea, and I just thought what if you took this to the absolute extreme. This guy realizes that it's not just his identify that's a mystery but the entire environment and world that he's in. So if you just kept pushing logically to the very end of it, you get something like this.
IT DOES PUSH THAT PARANOIA FROM THE FILM NOIR TO THE NTH DEGREE.Alex Proyas:
Sure, I think it's heart is much more film noir than possibly science fiction. It sort of evolved into a science fiction film, but it started off as an exploration of reality. That's kind of become a trendy thing to explore in science fiction, but when I was coming up with this idea, it didn't really feel like it was that genre; it felt like it was something altogether different. But I guess it's found its niche now.