I managed to find the Director's Cut which, according to the internet, source of all that is right and proper (well, mostly), is the better version to watch as it doesn't feature a spoiler-filled narration by Kiefer Sutherland's creepy Dr Schreber. So, the film opens at midnight, with John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) waking up in a hotel bath with no memory of who he is or why he's there. A body of a prostitute with spirals carved into her chest lies in the next room and soon a detective (William Hurt) shows up, as do the mysterious Strangers, led by Mr Hand (Richard O'Brien). Against the backdrop of a serial killer manhunt, Murdoch makes his way around the city, tracking down his wife (Jennifer Connelly) and trying to find out who he is and why everyone's after him.
Dark City is a film that should be viewed with as little awareness of its developments as possible, so here is a spoiler-warning. While I don't want to ruin any viewing of the film should you wish to view without any prior knowledge, I will be going into a little bit of detail around some of the key themes. So if you do wish to avoid slight spoilers, maybe look away for a bit and come back for the conclusion in the final paragraph should you need convincing to watch the film.
The construction of the dark city itself is one of the film's best attributes, a sprawling, dingy metropolis that shifts and develops quite literally as the film progresses. It gives it a real dank, depressing atmosphere, perfectly suited to its two genres. Although it eventually develops into full science fiction, the film begins firmly in noir territory (though certain anachronistic touches mean you never quite know when you are). We get hard-boiled detectives in their trench coats and trilbies, nightclub singers with perfectly-set hair and ruby-red lips and a murder mystery plot that gives way to something else. This blend of genres invites comparisons with an earlier film that made the same move, though Blade Runner is still the vastly superior film.
In this respect, Dark City also shares several thematic crossovers with Ridley Scott's picture, especially with the idea of humanity. The theme of what makes a human is something which is has been a chief feature of science fiction, both literary and cinematic, but Dark City manages to approach it in an interesting and thought-provoking way. The structure of the narrative draws you in enough to keep you intrigued whilst not handing you the entire plot within the first ten minutes. The Strangers, led by a creepy Ian Richardson, are attempting to find the human soul by 'tuning' different environments and by 'imprinting' humans with memories and character traits to see how they react and develop.
By using the Strangers as external viewers, this question becomes one for the audience too. What, precisely are they seeking by exchanging people's memories and personalities? Can it be contained in such a clinical way? The answer is of course that it can't and that engineering a person a certain way, as with Murdoch, does not guarantee any outcome. However, unlike Blade Runner, the use of the Strangers as humanity's counterpoint doesn't inspire the empathy that makes the replicants in Scott's film such troubling characters. The Strangers are always shown as otherworldly with their psychic abilities and control of the world around them whereas the replicants were so compelling precisely because they were so human.
This isn't helped by the ultimate reveal that the human characters aren't really who they think they are, but are constructed by the Strangers to assess their behaviour. Despite great performances from Rufus Sewell and William Hurt, once I discovered they may never have been those characters, I found it undercut any opinion I had had about them in the entire film. Also, having Kiefer Sutherland's Dr Schreber as the one human almost untampered with also undermined the central premise. Schreber was a selfish, desperate man keeping himself alive, eventually redeeming himself with Murdoch but who, up until that point, had simply done the Strangers' bidding. Whilst this idea of imprinting was an interesting medium through which to demonstrate human nature, I felt it didn't inspire the same empathy I had experienced with other films which explored similar themes.
Despite having an extremely strong start, the film's third act lets it down when the characters' fluid history is revealed and it unravels quite spectacularly from taut mystery thriller to bonkers sci-fi in just a couple of scenes. Proyas spends the first half of the film playing down the more sci-fi elements in favour of the mystery, building tension through misdirection and unexplained happenings. Though the Strangers are clearly not human, it's unclear whether they are more scientifically advanced or supernaturally so. While this works in building up the audience's expectations, the genre shift in the second half feels mishandled, clunking like the mechanisms of the city. The battle between a suddenly empowered John Murdoch and the Strangers lacks in drama and basically consists of Sewell and Richardson in a staring competition, connected by some wibbly-wobbly blue effects that detract from the action rather than enhance it.
And for all those who wished to avoid spoilers, here's the conclusion. The frustrating thing about Dark City is there is a fantastic science fiction film in there but somehow never manages to break into the Blade Runner territory it seeks to achieve. That being said, it's a fascinating watch and nothing if not thought-provoking so I urge you to see it if you haven't or treat yourself to another viewing. Whilst it isn't the best science-fiction film out there, my friend was right in stating that it's one of the most interesting and, despite its flaws, Dark City is a challenging thriller that does indeed deserve its cult following.