Alex Proyas must surely be cursing slack-jawed teenage test-audiences the world over. For here he's created one of the most bewildering and amazing opening sequences ever filmed. But the shocking sense of being dropped into the deep end of a nightmare is completely negated by the inclusion of an opening, moron-proof (and probably studio-imposed) narration. It's like Basic Instinct starting with a banner that reads, "She IS the murderess". This is a world-first case where arriving at the cinema two or three minutes late would certainly be an advantage.
As you'd expect from the director of The Crow (and also from the none-too-subtle title), Dark City is a gloomy sort of film. The sets use concrete, rain-soaked roads and subdued hues to create a noirish comic-book vision of a big, bad metropolis. The drab inhabitants stay locked inside '50s cars or huddle in the pools of neon light created by sterile diners. From the opening sequence, when everyone falls asleep at the stroke of midnight (but the panicked hero wakes up), it's clear that all is not well in Dark City.
These days, saying that a movie's been directed like a pop video has become a sly insult, although in this case it's a credit to Proyas. He edits the film at a rush, drawing on his promo and ad background, yet never so self-consciously stylistically or quickly that you lose track of what's happening.
In one scene, the main character discovers that his name's J Murdoch by reading it in a hotel registration book. To work out his first name, he tries all the options by walking past a shop window and introducing himself to his reflection: "Hi, I'm Jack Murdoch/Jake Murdoch/the name's Julian Murdoch". The quick-fire cuts get the message across in 10 seconds or so, and it works just fine.
Indeed, Proyas' grounding in commercial film-making has opened his mind to the possibilities of digital editing. Rather than simply replicating reality with computer graphics, he uses morphs instead of cuts, warping and twisting both the picture and sound to increase the unreality of an already fantastical story. Combining cine film, supersaturated colour flashbacks and incredible model sequences with impressive CGI, he makes both the story and the city look more impressive than the considerably more expensive Gotham of those crap Batman movies.
Okay, so it's not too hard to work out the few gaps that are left by the cruddy opening monologue, but with aliens, moving streets, growing buildings, impenetrable subway maps and changing lives, there's always enough happening to keep the audience distracted from the film's predictable `shock' ending.
The voice-over, incidentally, is by the ever-poor Kiefer Sutherland, whose panting Dr Mengele-style performance is so dreadful that it actually becomes compulsively entertaining. The rest of the cast are either very good (Rufus Sewell and William Hurt), very good and beautiful (Jennifer Connelly), very odd (Ian Richardson) or very naked (Melissa George), so they're equally watchable one way or another.
Dark City may be totally memorable, but it is simply far too weird to be a sure-fire cinema hit - despite it being sufficiently innovative to deserve that status. Give it time enough for a video release though, and it's strange and different enough to rival The Crow's current position as an iconic student-house cult classic.
Splendidly messed-in-the-head, Dark City will either grab you totally or leave you cold in the first few minutes. Fusing startling visuals with a fairly good script, it succeeds because it's dripping with that rarest of movie commodities - fresh new ideas.