Like Hong Kong action directors reinventing the western, Australia's current crop of filmmakers are happily absorbing the received wisdom of Hollywood and boomeranging it back at us. Recalibrated film noir. The costume epic as psycho drama. Road movies with no maps. There's no end to the modifications and mutations.
Sometimes, of course, the boomerang catches you in the neck. In "Dark City," Down Under director Alex Proyas revisits some of the territory he created for "The Crow," a tale of murder and revenge based on James O'Barr's comic-art novel, which gothicized the city and made the set design as much a character in the film as the late Brandon Lee's unhappy character. With "Dark City," we're in a similar landscape, but this time the set design is paramount.
The hero, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), awakens in a bathtub and doesn't know where he is. Neither do we. Murdoch seems to be registered at the Hotel Raymond Chandler, the city itself seems to lie somewhere between Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Tim Burton's Gotham City.
There's a scene at an automat. Is it the '40s? No, there's a '61 Falcon idling beside a '90s Citroen. Jessica Rabbit look-alike Jennifer Connelly, playing Murdoch's estranged wife, Emma, is a torch singer in a bygone boi^te. Kiefer Sutherland, as Dr. Daniel Schreber, looks like the kid from "A Christmas Story" all grown up and gone bad. He speaks in an asthmatic staccato and walks with a limp borrowed from Everett Sloane in "Lady From Shanghai." William Hurt, as bemused as ever, is Detective Bumstead, a refugee from pulp fiction.
So what have we? It all gets explained--and excused--but not until we finally find out just what the Strangers, a race of ghouls who've decided to squat on Earth, are up to (it doesn't make much sense, but we won't tell you anyway). Made up like Murnau vampires and able to "tune"--or "alter reality by will alone"--they nevertheless carry nasty knives with which they perform various atrocities on unsuspecting humans: Each midnight, the city's population passes out and its collective memory is erased. The Strangers clearly have the ability to cloud men's minds--except John, who wakes up unscheduled and finds he, too, can "tune."
If you had to guess, you might say that Proyas came out of the world of comic art himself, rather than music videos and advertising. "Dark City" is constructed like panels in a Batman book, each picture striving for maximum dread. But Proyas' roots are clear enough: A shot of the city suspended in space seems to be almost a direct lift from a British Airways ad of a few years back; the scenes of the Strangers assembled in their grotto recalls another commercial I seem to have seen, perhaps during some relatively recent Olympic coverage, which had a Big Brother theme and might have been made for Nike. Proyas made Nike commercials, according to his bio. Maybe he's paying homage to himself.
At a time when the news plays out like a movie, making a movie about manufactured people in a manufactured city doesn't amount to the subtlest of commentaries on the state of the world. But Proyas is trying simultaneously to create a pure thriller and sci-fi nightmare along with his tongue-in-cheek critique of artifice. And this doesn't work out quite so well.
British heartthrob Sewell (best bedroom eyes since Giancarlo Giannini) affects the flattest American accent possible with a performance to match, while trying to embody every Kafka-inspired movie hero from Edmond O'Brien in "D.O.A." to the unborn George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life." What he can't do is erase the distracting illogic of "Dark City" or create tension when all those around him are camping it up.
* MPAA rating: R for nudity, adult situations and violence. Times guideline: Keep the kids away; it'll only confuse them about what makes a good movie.
William Hurt: Inspector Bumstead
Rufus Sewel: John Murdoch
Kiefer Sutherland: Dr. Schreber
Jennifer Connelly: Emma Murdoch
Richard O'Brien: Mr. Hand
Ian Richardson: Mr. Book
A New Line Cinema release. Directed by Alex Proyas. Produced by Andrew Mason and Alex Proyas. Written by Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer. Cinematography, Dariusz Wolski. Music, Trevor Jones. Production design, George Liddle, Patrick Tatopoulos. Custom design, Liz Keogh. Editor, Dov Hoenig. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
* In general release.