For a film to truly be a cult movie, it only needs to do one thing: flop. If people feel that they personally have discovered a movie and must share it with their friends, then you have the makings of a cult classic. Films like Napoleon Dynamite, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Bad Santa and Garden State are considered cult movies, but they’re not- all those films were box office hits, and found their targeted audiences in theaters first. Alex Proya’s Dark City, his first film after directing The Crow, had a stunning trailer, a good marketing campaign by New Line Cinema and was greeted by overwhelmingly positive reviews, but no one saw it.
The plot is both simple and confounding, as a man (Rufus Sewell) awakens to a world that is literally always changing and he neither knows exactly who he is, nor the people around him (including Jennifer Connelly as a femme fatale). Over the course of a long night, he uncovers a murder, a mad scientist (Kiefer Sutherland) up to no good, the presence of scary beings called The Strangers and a conspiracy that may involve him directly.
The plot twists come every few minutes and the story truly does reach into the most audacious directions. This is grand filmmaking, as Proyas creates a throwback to film noir, sci-fi paranoia, Hitchcock, German expressionism and ‘40’s style gumshoe thrillers. The performances are surprising- Sewell, often cast as a villain, is solid as the Everyman on the run, William Hurt is well cast as the Detective who knows something is very wrong, Connelly looks as natural in this world as she did in The Rocketeer and Sutherland, doing a feature-length Peter Lorre impression, gives a very mannered but undeniably gutsy portrayal (his final scenes are especially good). Without giving too much away, Richard O’Brian (of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”) is perfect as one of the many sinister figures that stalk the screen.
The only weak element is that, while clearly defined at the end, the characters are hard to warm up to. If Dark City is the more ambitious film, The Crow is still better in terms of being character-driven and heartfelt. Also, as good as Sewell is, no one holds the screen like Brandon Lee did in The Crow. Whereas that film had a clear center, Dark City seemingly has none. Yet, for an experience this rich, these may be moot points.
You’ll be knocked out by its spectacular look, visual effects, an exciting score by Trevor Jones, and a crazily twisty and twisted story. Once audiences got a look at it on video and DVD, they understood why such a weird-looking movie was showered with rave reviews (Roger Ebert called it the best film of 1998). Going to the movies should be about seeing something you’ve never seen before, and this wild, thrilling cult movie overflows with imagery you’d only find in the universe of dreams.