Roger Ebert Riffs on Dark City

The films Dark City and The Cell have a few things in common: 1) they are both among Roger Ebert’s favorite films (more on that below); and 2) each one is part of a rare film type where its characters – as well as its audience – are thrust into a strange world beyond their immediate comprehension.

The Library hosts an outdoor screening of Dark City this Friday night at sundown on the Rooftop Terrace of the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. This is the second installment of the annual Off-the-Wall Film Series, which is lucky enough to have Roger Ebert as curator. All films have been picked by the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic (exclusively for our KC audience!), a fact that gives us our theme: Ebert Presents Cult Films from the Balcony.

As in The Cell (which kicked off this series in May), Dark City offers viewers a surreal landscape – this time, it’s an ever-shifting urban nightmare that never sees the sun. Because of this setting and nearly flawless execution by its creative team, Ebert describes this film as “a very important landmark in the history of visionary film.” As he goes on to say in a commentary track recorded for the Dark City DVD:

“I think that these films that are based on images and special effects, that create an environment for the characters to try to find their way through are almost a genre by themselves. I’m reminded of movies like Metropolis and Blade Runner – and even some of the Batman pictures, even though I feel that they don’t succeed like Dark City does.”

[Please note: this commentary track was recorded before the Christopher Nolan reboot of the Batman franchise.]

But do not get the wrong idea: Dark City is not a CGI special-effects playground (in fact, some of the effects are primitive and deliberately low-tech: when the script calls for two buildings to collide, they actually put one building on wheels and literally rolled it into its neighbor). Most importantly, the effects serve the script – rather than distract from it.

Indeed, the Dark City script is very smart – it has the unrelenting pace of an action film, all the while making references to its many influences, including: film noir (the convention that is William Hurt’s police detective), German expressionist film (I would even venture that the characters played by Fritz Rasp in the silent classics Metropolis and Diary of a Lost Girl informed the Richard O’Brien performance in Dark City), the Vitruvian Man, Prometheus Bound, and Alfred Hitchcock.

Throughout his audio commentary, Ebert has nothing but praise for director Alex Proyas, including this riff:

“What does it mean when a director…gives homage to an earlier film? I think it consists of working in a tradition, such as jazz, where musicians will begin by playing their own composition and then will have a lot of fun by quoting passages from other work or other styles. The way that Proyas occasionally makes fairly evident quotations is part of the entire effect. It sort of creates a resonance, a chamber, in which all of these things coexist.”

Dark City is an ambitious and unconventional film, two qualities that have also kept it from winning the large audience that it deserves. The film made a profit by only the barest of margins, and it cost a mere $27 million. So take Ebert’s recommendation and take a chance on this great unknown, which adopts many of the techniques and stylistic conventions of classic Hollywood and then delivers on their promise, as Ebert explains: 

“This is the promise of film noir: that if you strip away the false façade, you’ll find the real façade underneath. And then, if you strip away the real façade, in this movie, you get a real real surprise.”

Dark City stars Rufus Sewell and Kiefer Sutherland, with Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, and Richard O’Brien. It is rated R. (96 min.)

* Please note: As an outdoor film series, Off-the-Wall screenings can only begin once the sun has gone down. On Friday, that time will be approximately 9:15 p.m. – which is later than usual for an Off-the-Wall screening. 

Check out Ebert’s original review of Dark City here – and click this link for his Great Movies review.

Paul Smith is a Communications Specialist for the Kansas City Public Library. His responsibilities include coordinating all film screenings at the Central Library, including the Off-the-Wall Film Series since 2008.

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