By Elford Alley. This is RETROGRADING, where we have to ask: Do you know the way to Shell Beach?

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THE FILM: Dark City

THE TIME: 1998, when Alex Proyas gave us what was essentially The Matrix a year before the Wachowksis did. Also, a time when a sci-fi film could be dark, strange, and R-rated.

RECOLLECTIONS: When Dark City hit theaters in 1998 it bombed, despite overwhelming praise from critics. (The film netted a few awards, including a Saturn Award, a Hugo nomination, and a Bram Stoker Award.) Roger Ebert called it the best film of 1998 and even recorded a commentary track for the first DVD release. With an average shot length of just two seconds and a gorgeously designed city that encapsulated various eras within its neo-noir setting, Dark City contained a truly unique look and feel. So, why did it flounder?

There are couple of reasons. First, the theatrical cut included a dreadful opening narration that explained every twist of the film up front. Without this commentary, we’re introduced to a vast city of anachronisms set in no specific time or place. We meet the protagonist, a man accused of murder with no memory of who he is or an explanation for his telekinetic abilities. (Also, we learn that he has telekinetic abilities.) This man is on the run from “The Strangers”, a sinister group of pale men who only add more suspense to the story as it slowly unfolds before us. With the narration, however, we’re told the movie is about aliens, then an hour passes before the film’s cast gets a chance to catch up. Second, the movie came out in the February dumping ground (the second biggest film of that weekend? Krippendorf’s Tribe). Under these circumstances Dark City gained steam gradually, mostly through word-of-mouth. With the Director’s Cut release in 2008, fans finally had an optimal version of the film.

Then there is The Matrix. No discussion of Dark City is complete without mentioning the mega-hit that came out the following year, one that shares a few similarities with Dark City. Both films feature a “chosen one” protagonist who boasts abilities no one else (aside from their respective villains) possess. The villains aren’t human, though they disguise themselves as humans when moving among them (and they dress the same — dark hats and coats in place of dark suits and glasses). Both have settings that are a facsimile of our world; Dark City being placed in a vast machine created by aliens as opposed to the advanced computer simulation of The Matrix. Of course, the economic stability of the ’90s meant many a film focused on how unfulfilling and false our world seemed to be, with an Everyman protagonist suddenly finding themselves thrust from the tyranny of 9 to 5. (Don’t forget, Office Space came out the next year too.)

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THE DIRECTOR: Before completing Dark City, his second film, Alex Proyas was best known as the filmmaker behind The Crow, another grim world of seemingly perpetual darkness. This time, instead of pulling from the comics, Proyas pulled from film, including Akira, The Maltese Falcon, Metropolis, and even Nosferatu. In cracking the story, he worked with Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer, who helped him streamline what he initially envisioned as a massive story following multiple characters. While the director was rightfully maligned for his white-washed attempt at an Egyptian epic, Gods of Egypt, Dark City reminds us that when properly motivated, Alex Proyas can create something truly great.

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THE CAST: For the protagonist, we have John Murdoch. Rufus Sewell nailed the character’s initial confusion and anxiety, as well as his transformation from a terrified person on the run to a hero willing to stand up to beings of incredible power. Helping Murdoch reach his destiny is Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), a scientist who is allowed to operate under The Strangers’ rule.

William Hurt seemed to be having the most fun, playing his noir-detective Inspector Frank Bumstead with a perfect note of cynicism and suspicion. John Murdoch’s wife, Emma Murdoch, played by Jennifer Connelly, received criticism for reciting her lines as if she was minutes from drifting to sleep. However, it can be argued that her realization that something is wrong with their world earlier on in the film leaves her detached and suspicious, hence her sometimes underwhelming response to the events around her. As Agent Smith — er, that is, Mr. Hand — we have Richard O’Brien, playing a murderous mirror of John Murdoch with glee.

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NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? Nostalgia-Fest. Highly recommended is the Director’s Cut, available on Blu-Ray/DVD. While some of the CGI have not aged well (try not to snicker at the reveal of what The Strangers really look like) the story, acting, and cinematography make Dark City a standout of late ’90s film.

RETROGRADE: 6.5 out of 10

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