Blu-ray Review: Dark City – Unrated Director’s Cut

Despite the fact that renowned film critic Roger Ebert called director Alex Proyas’ (The Crow) Dark City his favorite film of 1998, the movie received a lukewarm reception at the box office, and many critics felt the story put forth in Dark City was weak, but some still couldn’t help but admire the film. Peter Stack of The San Francisco Chronicle wrote: “The plot is weak, and the self- conscious script tries too hard to be knowing and sexually suggestive. Judging from the dialogue alone, “Dark City” is a clumsy melodrama. But the film’s twisting of reality and its daring look — layered and off-kilter grays, greens and blacks — make it click.” Perhaps that’s what accounts for the small but dedicated following that has grown around Dark City in the decade since the films initial release.

dcity1.jpgThanks to a dedicated fan base, Proyas was able to convince New Line to release a Director’s Cut of Dark City on DVD. Finally released on both DVD and Blu-ray on July 29, 2008, the Director’s Cut expands the 100-minute theatrical runtime to 111 minutes. Several scenes have been lengthened by a shot or two, which adds a bit more flavor to the overall project, but one huge change will be noticeable to fans at the start of the film. Back when Dark City was being prepared for its initial theatrical run, the studio insisted that the film begin with a voice over that explained the dark forces at work behind the scenes. This was followed by a visually engaging scene pulled from the middle of the film, designed to pull the audience in, and draw them away from what may have been a slightly confusing first act. The Director’s Cut eliminates the voiceover, and restores the scenes to their rightful order.
The story centers on John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), who wakes up one night lying naked in a strange bathtub in a strange room in a strange apartment in a strange city. He receives a call from a mysterious man telling him that someone has erased his memory. John then finds the body of a murdered woman nearby. If that’s not enough, there’s a group of dark, scary figures chasing after him. The world is now under the control of an unknown alien race of beings who possess the ability to “tune” the world to their liking and adjust the memories of the people inhabiting it as a social experiment; the idea is to actually inhabit the souls of human beings.
From there, Murdoch searches the city trying to figure out who he is; a killer, an upset husband? In the meantime, a police detective, Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt), searches the city for a serial killer, with Murdoch his most likely suspect. Kiefer Sutherland gives what I think is one of the best performances of his career, as Dr. Daniel Schreber a mad scientist who claims to know everything about John Murdoch. Jennifer Connelly plays a woman claiming to be Murdoch’s estranged wife.
It helps Dark City that the film has no major stars. As you’ll learn in the director’s commentary, both Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp were considered for the role of John Murdoch, but the part ultimately went to Rufus Sewell. That casting choice allowed Dark City to take on a timeless B-picture quality that wouldn’t have been possible if an A-list star were involved. The dialogue between Wiliam Hurt and Rufus Sewell is engaging, but can be rather stiff at times. If I had one small complaint about Dark City, it would be that at times the film is too quick to give out information.
dcity2.jpgProyas’ stunning visuals is what brings Dark City together. The camera swings from one striking image to another — mutating buildings; floating, endless shadows (the cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski, went on to work with Tim Burton and Disney’s Pirates trilogy). The special effects age well not because they pioneered any particular technique, but because they serve the story. Ultimately, Dark City is a success because Proyas’ first concern seemed to be creating the best story possible, not pleasing studio executives or creating the latest blockbuster. Now, with Dark City – Unrated Director’s Cut fans and those unfamiliar with the film, will get a chance to see Dark City the way Alex Proyas envisioned it.
The disc is a BD50, VC-1, 1080p, 2.35:1 ratio, Blu-ray transfer. The movie is dark, to be sure, but its colors (what there are beyond black, white, gray, and brown) stand out very clearly and vibrantly; and, of course, the definition is sharper. The audio is provided in a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English track.
The major extra on the disc is getting a new Director’s Cut along with the movie’s original theatrical release. If you want to know specifics about the differences between the theatrical release and the Director’s Cut, you can choose to watch the Director’s Cut with an optional “Director’s Cut Fact Track,” which provides pop-up comparisons between the two versions.
This disc offers five audio commentaries. On the original cut you’ll find a track with director Alex Proyas, writers Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer, director of photography Dariusz Wolski, and production designer Patrick Tatopoulos, plus another track with film critic Roger Ebert. On the Director’s Cut you’ll find new tracks by the director, by the writers, and by Ebert.
On the Director’s Cut are two 1998 documentaries, Memories of Shell Beach, forty-three minutes, and Architecture of Dreams, thirty-three minutes, with an optional introduction by director Proyas and critic Ebert.
There is also a photo gallery, two text essays, fantasy author Neil Gaiman’s take on Dark City and a comparison of Dark City to Metropolis and a widescreen theatrical trailer.
English is the only spoken language available, but there are Spanish subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.
The package also includes a second disc containing a digital copy of the movie for use on Windows Media compatible PCs.

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