Dark City (1998)

I stumbled into the late-90s sci-fi curio Dark City with the best contextual background info possible: none. I picked up a used DVD copy of its Director’s Cut from a cat-rescue thrift store in Metairie, knowing only that it’s a divisive work from a director I don’t typically care for: Alex Proyas (Gods of Egypt, The Crow). I didn’t even know what decade the film was initially released in, assuming that it must have arrived at least five years later than it had – if not twice that. In retrospect, it was incredibly rude of this shameless decade-late Matrix rip-off to arrive a year before The Matrix, further confusing my understanding of what I had watched. Dark City is an infinitely faceted mystery. It initially establishes the mystery of what’s even happening in its futurist-noir plot, something that doesn’t become fully apparent until a third of the way into its runtime. Once its worldbuilding cards are all on the table, the questions only snowball: How is this much parallel thinking with other sci-fi works of its era even possible? Is it a masterful work of speculative fiction or just a fascinating mess? How did Proyas, of all people, stumble into creating something so worthy of continued personal interpretation & debatr? These mysteries are best experienced in a contextual vacuum, a self-discovery blind-watch. In other words, you should not be reading this review if you haven’t already seen the film for yourself.

Oddly, the audiences least equipped to see Dark City with the necessary blank slate were the people who caught it during its initial theatrical run back in 1998. At producers’ insistence, the initial theatrical cut of the film opened with a narration track that spoiled the central mystery of its sci-fi premise – dumping key information that’s carefully trickled out in the Director’s Cut with one intense flood. I’m genuinely glad I waited the twenty years necessary for the film to find me in the wild, rather than jumping on it in a time when it was less special and, apparently, self-spoiled. Whereas Dark City feels like a bizarro anomaly in retrospect, it was a victim of a crowded field of parallel-thinkers in the late-90s. Remarkably similar titles like eXistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor, and The Matrix (a movie that, like Dark City, was curiously an American-Australian co-production) were all released within a year of Proyas’s curio. It’s tempting to blame Dark City‘s financial failures on New Line Cinema’s decision to open it on the same weekend as James Cameron’s cultural behemoth The Titanic, but the truth is that only one of these films succeeded in their time, regardless of their opening-weekend competition. Contemporary audiences seemingly only had the capacity to love one simulated-reality sci-fi spectacle in that era, allowing the test of time to sort out the rest to varying results – eXistenZ rules as a video game era update to Videodrome; The Thirteenth Floor is a “You Had to Be There” snoozer; and Dark City is a confounding headscratcher that’s equal parts glaringly Flawed and mesmerizingly Ambitious.

If you haven’t guessed by all this repetitive Matrix referencing, this is a science-fiction film about simulated reality. Whereas the Wachowskis approached that topic through a cyberpunk lens, however, Proyas dialed the genre clock back to 1940s noir. The titular Dark City looks like a physical recreation of Gotham City as it appears in Batman: The Animated Series. Only, the towering metropolis shifts & reconfigures like a malfunctioning Rubik’s Cube, controlled by an unseen force that only reveals itself to the audience once they lose control of the game. The characters shift around just as easily as the buildings. That’s because an alien race known only as The Strangers have abducted an entire city-sized population of human beings and quarantined them in a human-scale rat maze, a closed-off city with no exits. Their experiments on human behavior are hinged on nightly resets where The Strangers transplant memories from one human test subject to another, reassigning different personalities & roles to arbitrarily selected specimens as if they were a rotating theatre company cast instead of “real” people. The goal of the experiment appears to be settling the Nature vs. Nurture debate, determining whether a person’s life path is defined by their lived experiences or their set-in-stone soul. The undoing of the rat maze simulation is very similar to the one in The Matrix: one of the rats gains the seemingly magic ability to alter the physical environment that contains him, becoming just as powerful as his captors, if not more so. We watch a confused protagonist start off as a Hitchcockian archetype who’s wrongly accused of murder discover an even greater mystery in the effort to clear his name: Nothing is real.

Since it understandably takes a while for this high-concept premise to fully reveal itself (at least in its narration-free Director’s Cut), Dark City‘s strongest asset is its creepy mood. Not only does it borrow the late-hour, back-alley atmosphere from the noir genre, it pushes that stylistic influence to the point where the only sunlight depicted onscreen is in billboard advertisements. Characters half-remember sunlight being A Thing, just like they remember trains that actually leave the city and childhoods that were entirely fabricated by The Strangers. Watching them grapple with the slow realization that everything they see & know is Fake is genuinely disturbing, no matter how many times that theme was echoed in similar contemporary works. It helps that The Strangers themselves make for deeply creepy foes, chattering their teeth when agitated and dressing up like Nosferatu G-Men. Those alien super-creeps are maybe the only truly idiosyncratic element at play visually, as the film blatantly borrows a lot of influence from the production design of preceding works like Brazil & City of Lost Children. Dark City mostly distinguishes itself in how its familiar noir archetype characters and retro-futurist cityscapes shift around—both physically and spiritually—into chaotic, unstable configurations. It’s a continuous sensation of having the rug pulled from under you as you attempt to get a sturdy footing in established, solid reality. That sensation has its thematic justifications rooted in an Early Internet era when online personae & communication were starting to supplant The Real Thing, which might explain why so many of these simulated-reality sci-fi pictures all arrived in the same year. More importantly, it’s effectively creepy, at least enough so to carry you through the mystery of its plot.

Unfortunately, I can’t quite match the enthusiasm of Dark City‘s most emphatic defenders (most significantly Roger Ebert, who repeatedly declared the flop his favorite film of 1998). Besides suffering the same Macho misinterpretation of noir that most of the genre’s throwbacks perpetrate (sidelining Jennifer Connelly of all people and mostly casting women as half-naked prostitute corpses), the movie also makes a major mistake in how it unravels the rat-maze experiment of its premise. I don’t know that I needed a fatalistic worldview where there’s no escape from The Strangers’ wicked manipulations of their victims’ memories, but that option certainly would have fit the mood of the piece better than transforming its running-from-the-law protagonist into a Chosen One superhero archetype. The more our amnesiac anti-hero uses his newfound superpowers to bend his rat-maze surroundings to his will (materializing doorways in brick walls, shaping the geography of the buildings to his convenience, fighting off The Strangers with his Professor X mind powers, etc.), the more they deflate the film’s creepy mood. It doesn’t at all help that Dark City accurately predicted the very worst impulses of the 2000s-2010s superhero blockbuster in its abrupt climactic battle, where our hero squares off against the top Stranger in mind-powers combat while the city crumbles around them in shoddy CGI. This genre shift from atmospheric noir to superhero spectacle isn’t a total mood-killer, but it does fall just short of “It was all a dream” in the least interesting paths the movie could have chosen. At least, that’s how it feels watching this after a solid decade of MCU dominance over mainstream culture.

The benefit of watching Dark City for the first time all these years later is that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be interesting or worthwhile. Its need to compete with contemporary triumphs like The Matrix or eXistenZ continues to fade with time, even if its year-early arrival before those sci-fi classics remains a mysterious curiosity. I found the movie glaringly flawed & confounding from start to end, and yet I’m increasingly fond of it the more I puzzle at it. It’s a deeply strange, beautifully hideous film that’s totally dislodged from its place in time.

-Brandon Ledet

Gods of Egypt (2016)

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Director Alex Proyas has been going on some epic Facebook rants lately, decrying the violently dire critical & commercial response his latest film, Gods of Egypt, is being met with at the box office. He’s particularly frustrated that what he describes as “hate bloggers” have organized a boycott of the film due to its predominately whitewashed casting of its Egyptian characters. Much like the recent Ridley Scott epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, Gods of Egypt represents for a lot of people yet another example of a long line of Hollywood pictures in which POC actors have been locked out of the lead roles that, at the very least for historical accuracy, should not have been granted to white actors. Proyas claims that the reason critics have been harping on his film’s problematic casting is that they’re too overworked to form opinions on their own & instead parrot the shrill voices of “hate blogging” (whatever that is) out of convenience or laziness. Proyas genuinely believes that if his film were able to stand on its own merits outside of its political controversy, it’d be doing much better at the box office. He’s taken to the soapbox he claims to hate the most (online criticism) to cry foul, to complain that he hasn’t been given a fair shake as a filmmaker.

Now, I’m not sure if this makes me a lazy critic or a “hate blogger” (maybe both?), but I also hated Gods of Egypt. However, despite what Proyas might believe, I didn’t enter the film wanting to hate it. In fact, I set the bar for my enjoyment so pathetically low that it’s incredible that the film failed to clear it (despite its excess of golden wings). Equipped ahead of time with foreknowledge of the film’s controversial casting, dire reviews, and crackpot director (whose work ranges from total shit like The Crow to actually-enjoyable nonsense like Knowing), I felt like I was steeled to what the film had going against it. Still, there was a visual element in the trailer that made me hopeful that it might be mildly enjoyable as a campy trifle. What I was expecting was the visually striking, narratively undercooked mess of Snow White & The Huntsmen, which I enjoyed despite its negative critical consensus. What the film delivered instead was the bland CGI worldscape that put me to sleep (literally) both times I tried to watch 300 in the theater (and, curiously enough, both films star Gerard Butler). Gods of Egypt has problems that extend far beyond its racially tone deaf casting & temper tantrum-prone director. The film is also a hopeless bore, which might be the most damning fault of them all.

Similar to the way The Witch attempts to breathe life into the religious paranoia of Puritan beliefs, Gods of Egypt aims to illustrate the myths of gods living among men that once populated ancient, polytheistic Egyptian philosophy. The difference is that The Witch dealt in sincere historical recreation while Gods of Egypt attempted to mold its subject’s mythology into a goofy action epic framework & the most despicable genre of them all: the shameless franchise-starter. Through overbearing storybook narration, Indiana Jones-style action adventure, and flat-on-their-face quips, Gods of Egypt tells the story of a half-blind god & a mortal thief who team up to stop a deranged relative who plans on merging life & the afterlife in a quest to claim absolute power. I won’t bother you with many plot details, since very few are of interest & can be boiled down to dual damsel in distress rescues. True love prevails over death & destruction, the men save their ladyfriends, the universe maintains its balance, etc. The stakes rarely feel high in Gods of Egypt, because each challenge is conquered with ease by a pair of protagonists who have no option but to succeed. The Egyptian mythology setting mostly serves as a backdrop for a white knight story we’ve all seen play out countless times before.

The best chance you have of enjoying Gods of Egypt is either as mindless eye candy or as a so-bad-it’s-good camp fest. May the gods pity you in either case. The film’s costume & set design are bathed in sweet, delicious gold, but the effect was tiring after its initial introduction. The brevity of the film’s trailers did its visual style a huge favor, distracting the eye from its bland CGI mediocrity by making it seem downright lush through rapid editing. There’s a few interesting details here or there: a masked army in blood-red robes, a flying chariot pulled by scarabs, gods bleeding gold when wounded in battle, etc. For the most part, though, the film is about as visually interesting as a video game cutscene (something else I find unbearably boring). The creatures were particularly disappointing on that front. I kept waiting for them to prompt me to press “X”. As far as goofy camp goes, there isn’t much of interest to chew on there either. There’s exactly one line that made me laugh. When asked where his buddy is hiding, the mortal half of our heroic tag team responds “Up your butt,” which, you know, isn’t the height of wit or anything like that, but I’m honestly an easy audience. I also found a lot of humor in the way that they visually conveyed the gods’ imposing stature by making giant-sized versions of their props to dwarf their human counterparts. That’s the kind of tactic you’d expect in an old midnight movie like Attack of the Puppet People, not a modern $140 million action epic.

Acting wise, most of Gods of Egypt‘s (again, controversial) cast is on autopilot. Gerard Butler performs as if he’s in 300 Part Deux. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau phones it in as a barely-engaged Jamie Lannister, trading in his missing hand for a missing eye & swapping the moniker “King Slayer” for “Lion Slayer”. Brenton Thwaites & Chadwick Boseman (a legit POC actor! and he’s not even an extra!) overact in a way that’s far more annoying than it is entertaining. The female leads are given little more to do than to dress provocatively & await rescue. Only Geoffrey Rush’s out of nowhere turn as the sun god Ra stands out as wildly-entertaining scenery chewing. One gets the distinct feeling that the renowned actor is slumming it in this feature-length high resolution screensaver, but his delightfully bitchy take on the all-powerful Ra was one of the sole bright spots in a film that could’ve used a lot more of them. At least half a star in this review’s rating is due to his performance alone, which, as you can probably tell, was a much-needed boost.

Part of me kinda feels bad for Proyas. He’s such a typical 90s Guy that he probably had no idea that such a cultural backlash was going to plague Gods of Egypt from its initial announcement to its dismal box office opening. In his mind, he made a grand scale Hollywood epic with a handsome cast & a lot of browbeating about how “In this world you’re either rich or you’re nothing” & the radical idea that slavery is cruel. He expected to get by on good intentions, particularly perplexed that his own Egyptian heritage didn’t allow him to sidestep criticism for whitewashed casting in yet another mishandled Hollywood take on the region’s past. The truth is that just as many people would’ve been annoyed with Gods of Egypt’s casting pre-Internet, but would’ve had a much more difficult time publishing/publicizing their complaints. Casting isn’t the only way the film feels politically stale, though. Take, for instance, the protagonist god’s jealousy that his lover had sex with her wicked, power-hungry enslaver. It’s the romantic jealousy that’s played as a character fault, not the fact that he’s slutshaming his lover for being serially raped. That’s the exact kind of outdated sentiment that seems to be going over Proyas’s head, making him subject to intense scrutiny from “hate bloggers” & “lazy critics”. If released sometime in the 90s, Gods of Egypt might’ve been able to skate by as a mediocre prequel to a forgettable blockbuster like The Mummy. In 2016 its moral ickinees is too much of a sore thumb to overlook, especially for something that aims to be a franchise starter. You get the distinct feeling throughout the film that Proyas & company should’ve known better (or at least tried harder). After reading Proyas’s rants it’s all the more confusing that Gods of Egypt is such a dull slog. This is the film he’s going to bat for? This is what he’s confused about no one liking?

There’s a single scene in Gods of Egypt that perfectly sums up my whole experience watching the film. During a heavily green-screened chariot chase an arrow strikes & kills the mortal doofus hero’s beloved & she dies while he blankly looks on & continues to steer their escape. This scene is everything Gods of Egypt is in a nutshell: visually uninteresting, passionless, seemingly plucked from a time long gone (and I don’t mean ancient Egypt). Again, Proyas should’ve known better. Or he at least should’ve known to concede defeat when it failed to connect with audiences & critics, who, despite what the director seems to believe, are the very same people.

-Brandon Ledet