When discussing The Thirteenth Floor, a big part of the review had to address the elephant in the room: The MatrixA speculative future story with superhero and anime influences, The Matrix not only pushed viewers to think about the nature of their own reality but also expanded what filmmakers could do with action sequences and filming. It then launched a series of movies, games, and comics, creating a franchise still talked about today.. Whether intentional or not, The Thirteenth Floor felt like a low-budget copy of the 199 action spectacular that had come out around the same time. But there was really more to the conversation as both films, The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor, were part of a trend, stories questioning the state of reality and the place of humans (and human characters) within. The late 1990s were rife with these stories, right up until The Matrix dominated the conversation entirely.
Look nor further than Dark City, released in 1998, with its own take on "what is reality" and "what is our place in the world". A visually rich film directed and co-written by Alex Proyas (who famously directed The Crow), the film is a depicts a city where nothing is really quite it seems, where everyone is controlled, part of a larger experiment, and only one man within the system can fight back and free humanity. If that sounds familiar, then there's no denying that the movie was also playing in the fertile ground that The Matrix soon came to dominate.
Of course, Dark City also wasn't as successful as The Matrix, either. While many storytellers and film-makers were looking for ways to explore this ground, audiences weren't exactly buying up this genre in droves. Dark City, like The Thirteenth Floor after it, was basically a bomb at the Box Office. It only recouped $27.2 Mil against its $27 Mil budget, failing to live on except in the minds of a few fans who really dug what the film had to offer.
Not helping the film at all is the fact that the studio felt the need to tinker with it in post-production. The theatrical cut of the film opens when voice over that explains the whole "mystery" of the film. Sometime in the past aliens came to Earth. These aliens had the ability to "tune", to remake reality as they saw fit. Desperate, on the edge of death as a species, they saw something special in humans: their souls. Thinking the only way they could survive, and thrive, would be to find that spark of humanity, the aliens started an experiment, a way to find that spark and replicate it. And so they started tinkering and messing with humanity in a controlled way.
In the city wakes John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), in a hotel room he doesn't recognize, sitting in a bathtub. He goes into his hotel room and finds a dead body, a prostitute that someone killed. Not him, he doesn't think, because he has no memory of it. But then, he doesn't have much memory of anything, just flashes of a life he doesn't recognize. Wandering the city, wanted for a series of crimes he doesn't think he committed, John needs to piece together what's going on. The city feels wrong. People keep falling asleep and then waking, but not John. And sometimes they change and are completely different people. And through it all the sun never rises, strange men wander the city, and no one seems to think anything is wrong. What is wrong with the city? What is wrong with the world?
Let's be clear, the opening voice over absolutely drains all the suspense out of the premise. Without it (as in the Director's Cut of the film) the movie opens without you knowing what's going on. John has no memory, no clue how he got where he is, and he, like the audience, has to piece together his life. This adds a twisty element to the film such that when weird things start happening around him, you're not sure why or how. That mystery is essential to the film, to keeping the audience engaged.
Of course, the opening voice over also ruins the surprise about the aliens. They just seems like dark men in black suits, looking a little like nosferatu. You don't know why they're there or what they're doing. But with that voice over, well, it's all made way too clear. Aliens, tuning, looking for the soul. Uh huh, sure, got it. Well, then we're just here to watch their whole system fall apart when John, who clearly has their powers, tears everything down and saves humanity. Basic superhero story, in essence.
As far as John is concerned, he's not exactly the strongest lead for the film, especially because all the mystery about him is removed at the start. The film goes out of its way to quickly explain to us that he's special, that he has powers, that he is, well, The One. Yes, a year before Neo came out in The Matrix here is John Murdock, the one special guy with all the powers that can take down the Man and save the world. This is, again, a pretty standard trope, so I'm not necessarily picking on Dark City here, but the film doesn't really find much special to do with John outside of his innate "one-ness", and as a character, he's pretty flat.
This isn't the fault of Sewell, mind you, who does what he can to craft an interesting and charismatic character out of someone who, by design, is a blank void. Hell, all the actors in this film are doing great work despite not really being given all that much to do. Jennifer Connelly plays John's wife, Emma, who stands around most of the time and pines for her lost husband. He character is nothing, but Connelly is great, her charisma selling Emma in ways the script never does. And William Hurt turns in a soulful performance as Inspector Frank Bumstead, the man assigned to track down John for those murders. Again, nothing special about the character, but Hurt adds needed gravitas to make the character more interesting than he has any right to be.
You can tell that the creators weren't interested in the characters so much as the world they were building. And yet, there's so many short cuts taken (at least in the theatrical cut) that reduces the sense of wonder and awe. The film is low budget, to be fair, so it can't produce the kind of jaw-dropping visuals that were needed, really. But even still, the creators quickly jump through the story, never bothering with more than a cursory explanation for the aliens or what they want. We need to get to the cool stuff, the rearranging of the city, the wiping of people's minds, and tuning. We need to see the Dark City as it evolves and shifts and changes.
It is a cool effect, mind you. Watching buildings in the city rise and fall, rooms shift, objects appear, it creates this sense that reality doesn't truly exist and anything can happen at any time. The vibe I get is this was the dream of the creators, that this was what they wanted to render on the screen. They do it, and this is what sells the film, for sure. But underneath it all, there's not much depth. It's cool effects but no real exploration of what that would really do to a person. Everyone just move on, new characters, new lives, new memories, everything old wiped away. If we could get more time with characters resisting the changes, finding ways to fight back, that would have created a needed level of depth to power the film.
No mistake, the concept is interesting. I've watched this film repeatedly because the concept is cool. A city where aliens change everything all the time and you never know who people will be or what they want one day to the next, that has potential for all kinds of freaky ideas. But the film, at 100 minutes, doesn't have the time to explore it all the way it could. There are great ideas in Dark City, and it makes for a decent little watch on its own. But once you know what's going on, and you've seen all the film has to offer, likely you'll set Dark City aside for something meatier and more fleshed out on all fronts.