Dark City an Overlooked Sci-fi Noir Film


DARK CITY (1998)

Directed by Alex Proyas

New Line Cinema, 111 minutes (director’s cut), R (nudity, language)





Dark City dovetails with my recent interest in film noir, though it’s a newer sci-fi movie. It tanked in North American theaters, but has come in for reevaluation. Subsequently, elements of it made their way into works such as The Matrix and Inception. The latter copied Dark City’s trippy f/x effect of a city building itself in front of our eyes, an afflatus also borrowed by Amazon Studios.


Dark City has inspired comic books and spin-off novels, plus director and screenwriter Alex Proyas went on to direct I, Robot, which was a huge hit. It didn’t hurt that the late Roger Ebert declared Dark City the best film of 1998, or that it won major non-Oscar awards.


Is Dark City a noir film? Absolutely! There’s not a speck of light in it until the end and cinematographer Darius Adam Wolski manipulates shadows, incidental light, and nighttime with the skill of 1940s masters. It's a good thing, as the entire movie is set in darkness and external settings look like a moving version of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Dark City also shares film noir’s penchant for murder mystery, though it might be more accurate to call the murders more of a subplot.


In brief, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) is an amnesiac who has no idea why he’s being pursued. As he attempts to piece together his identity, he learns that Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) has marked him the prime suspect in a series of Jack the Ripper-like murders of prostitutes. John’s wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) hasn’t seen John in weeks, as he stormed out after learning that she had an affair.


So far, so normal, but it won’t stay that way. As a line in the movie puts it, “First there was darkness; then came the Strangers.” The latter are aliens manipulating humankind through a reluctant human intermediary, research scientist Dr. Daniel Scheher (Kiefer Sutherland). As we learn, it’s always dark because each midnight the aliens hold a “tuning.” As fast as you can “Shut it down!” everyone falls asleep, all transportation freezes to a halt, and the bald, black-cloaked aliens float from place-to-place exchanging memories and rearranging much of the city. For instance, one unkempt couple in a decrepit hovel awake to find themselves seated at a fancy table in a luxury apartment and have no recollection of having lived any other way. Injections to the front of the brain provide complete backstories.


Why? That’s what John wants to know. He literally doesn’t sleep, but unlike everyone else except Detective Eddie Walenski (Colin Friels), he remembers everything that happened since he last awoke. Whereas Walenski has gone ‘round the twist and is painting concentric circles everywhere, John is determined to find out if he’s actually a serial killer, why things grind to a halt a midnight, why the city shapeshifts, and why it’s always dark. He even escorts a hooker named May (Melissa George) and watches her undress to test whether he’s a murderer. He will learn about the Strangers from Scherer. Why are they doing all of this? It has something to do with wanting to unlock the secret of the soul, but I’ll leave it at that. Needless to say, John will be tasked with avoiding Bumstead and saving the city. If only he can find Shell Beach, he thinks he can do it.


That is, if reality is “real.” Dark City mixes enough speculative science with fiction to inspire interesting mind games. There is a reference to “Last Thursdayism,” a geek’s take on Creationist theory that postulates there is no objective way to prove that anything existed prior to what can be immediately perceived. And maybe there is no city at all; perhaps everyone is inside a Dyson sphere.


Dark City has been compared to Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis. I can see that, but it also borrows from Blade Runner (1982), Delicatessen (1991), The City of Lost Children (1995), and Star Trek’s Borg episodes. The Strangers are a lot like the Borg in that they exist as a hive mind, though Mr. Book (Ian Richardson) seems to be a male equivalent of a queen bee. Anticipate caper-like flights and f/x-infused showdowns.


If you don’t like science-fiction, you should avoid this movie. I found it stylish. gripping, and a really interesting non-conventional appropriation of film noir. Ebert was right; most Americans missed an outstanding movie.


Rob Weir




Fransec Sans: December 2021 Artist of the Month




L’Infiniti (The Infinite)



December’s Artist of the Month Fransec Sans brings something different to your playlist. He’s a Catalan sac de gemecs player. In English, that’s the Catalan bagpipes, a three-drone kit that looks a lot like a set of Highland pipes, but has a slightly more melodic and brighter sound. On his debut album L’Infiniti, Sans uses old tunes as his inspiration and arranges them for the 21st century. Call it nouveau medieval court and village material. The bagpipes are front and center, but the album also includes guitar, bass, piano, lute, flute, harp, violin, squeeze boxes, vocals, and percussion.


The entire album can be sampled online, but here are a few I think are typical. “Tres Tocs, un Cant” has a big production opening that soars, swells, and sounds positively anthemic.  Abruptly, it transforms into something akin to a community celebration. You can almost paint the picture in your head, but just as swiftly it revives the formal structure of the opening, before doubling back to the gala. Background vocalizations help drive the alternating moods.


“JNavarro” has a more distinct Catalan rural pulse that’s enhanced with offbeat percussion that’s sometimes deliberately and literally the case. The middle section is a chase-the-tail-around-the-circle structure that could be the soundtrack for a caper film. Listen carefully for the short, but effective lute passages. Sans often opens formal and slips into patterns freer and informal. He does this again on “El Meu Sud,” whose opening is mysterious, moody, and flute-driven. For lack of a better descriptor I call it enigmatic pastoralism. Again, though, the piece is instantly enlivened when air blows through the chanter and drones. Josep Aparicio’s call-and-response vocals add further color. The opening half of “Dolors Gegante” is atmospheric and wintery in feel when Albert Carbonell puts bow to violin strings, but the pipes usher in a fast-paced piece evocative of a springtime dance fest, complete with clicking castanets. Catalan dances are often ¾ time jotas or rumbas that occasionally drift into 6/8 tempo. That’s because latter not analogs to Cuban rumbas, rather faster-paced Spanish tunes called guarachas.  


Catalan dance is so ebullient that participants hurl themselves airborne. They also frequently feature vocals. More on this in a moment, but let me first note another unique feature of this album, its percussive mix of the tombril, a skin drum that’s a bit like a bodhran. Sans and his collaborators engage in some global beats when they blend it with bongos. “Amoretes” is a bit of a switcheroo in that it’s a lively dance tune from the start, courtesy of accordion from Carlos Belda and then goes briefly darker before surrendering to spirited abandon. Just before the end, they switch again for a few seconds of a quiet, slower pace before taking us out with a flourish. 


“Desperta'm” isn’t on the album, but you might enjoy the video of this short piece. It’s set in the woods during and after a thunderstorm and the piping sounds as if it could be a requiem for the trees, though it suggests hope for renewal at the end. It’s fun to see a mud-covered Sans maintain his composure, which is a neat trick for a guy whose favored sartorial getup is to dress in white!


For my taste, the only downside of the record occurs when Mariona Escoda sings. She is talented, but the quality of her voice simply doesn’t connect with me. On “Les Quintes” she warbles a jazzy tune whose high register sounds like a Japanese bird. This, I hasten, is a reflection of personal preference, so you should listen and feel free to disagree. Loving those bagpipes, though!


Rob Weir





Surf’s Down: Under the Wave at Waimea and Malibu Rising



By Paul Theroux

Mariner Books, 416 pages.



By Taylor Jenkins Reid

Ballantine, 371 pages



 In winter, Northern clime readers often seek novels that feature warm beaches. If they have hunky surfers, all the better. Oddly, two novels by major authors featuring surfer life came out in 2021. Now for the mixed message: They aren’t bad, but neither are they stellar.



Under the Wave at Waimea features Joe Sharkey who, as a young man, was Adonis on a board–perhaps the greatest on any ocean. Women fell at his feet and then into his bed. In Section I of Paul Theroux’s new novel, we meet Joe at 62 and in still another relationship, this time with Olive, a 38-year-old English emigree nurse. “Shark” remains well-enough known to get free drinks and other minor perks, but for the new wave-riding hotshots, he’s either ancient history or someone they’ve only heard of. Such is the fate of every star athlete, but Joe has never done anything but surf and there’s not much call for a guy who can’t ride the big waves anymore. What do you do when the sponsorships run their course? Shark has simple needs, but still…. He is depressed, drinks too much, a tragic car accident leaves him afraid of the water, and he might be suffering from dementia. 


Section II takes us back to Joe’s troubled childhood–how he got to Hawaii, his relationship with his father, family tragedy, being bullied, the challenges of being a haole among native Hawaiians, and smoking dope. Solace comes in the ocean and from his Yoda-like mentor Uncle Sunshine.


It’s back to the present in Section III in which Joe is metaphorically drowning and Olive is about ready to bail. The interjection of a new character, Max Mulgrave, alters a lot of lives. He’s a Vietnam vet and tech guru/mogul who came to Hawaii and altered his life completely. Some think he’s literally a saint. He and Joe will collide, but Joe has a lot of demons to exorcise before he can hope to collect his AWOL marbles. 


The most intriguing part of the novel only tangentially involves Shark. Theroux does a superb job casting light at the resentment indigenous Hawaiians hold toward non-natives, especially white ones. I could have done without Theroux’s shallow psychologizing, but he really falls off the wave with a trite and cliched climax. This is a readable novel, but a middling effort from a writer we know to be better.





Taylor Jenkins Reid has penned a better surf novel, but not by much. Theroux’s book suffers from a one-dimensional central character; Malibu Rising from too much going on. It’s about watery Malibu life, but it’s also a multigenerational family saga into which Reid plops references from her previous novel. Toss in loads of background characters, surf heroes, dropped names of celebrities, and alternating main characters, and it’s very easy for readers to lose focus.


Reid likes glamor with or without bling and there’s plenty of both in Malibu Rising. Some comes slathered in cheese and is named Mick Riva. Reid tells us that family stories “are myths we create about the people who came before us, in order to make sense of ourselves.” Such tales have creation myths and this one begins in 1956, when head-in-the-clouds Mick meets, impregnates, and weds down-to-earth June Costas whose family runs a rustic fry shop. Fried fish is not a good match for a guy who fancies himself the next Bobby Darin. Trouble starts when Mick actually is good enough to go pro. He’s also good at fathering children–but by different women.


In the end there are four in the immediate Riva circle, three of whom are essentially mothered by Nina, the eldest, when Mick dallies, and June dies. Nina drops out of school, runs the fry shop, and at 18, becomes legal guardian of her sibs and half-sibs. Forget road-warrior Mick, who marries five times! Jay and Hud(son) are surfers as was Nina, but she discovers she can make a lot more money modeling swimsuits. She will also lose her tennis pro husband, who deals with losing his # 1 ranking by going full-Mick on Nina. The youngest of the Riva line is Kit who, not surprisingly, grows up confused and petulant.


All of these crazy dynamics come to a head at one of the Riva clan’s legendary beach house parties. Everyone comes: celebrities, wannabes, surfers, exes, current dalliances, total jerks, and nobodies. Metaphorically speaking, the gathering is a mix of petrol and matches, conducive for new family secrets to leach out, hysterics, drinking, drugs, arrests, literal home-wrecking, and Nina’s discovery of the end of her tether.


Malibu Rising has a lot of characters, but the more problematic aspect is that many are so thoroughly phony and unlikable that it’s hard to imagine them as anything other than the architects of their own misery. At 371 pages, Malibu Rising isn’t a massive tome, but with all those characters and a span of a half century of time, it feels like a draft of an epic. Reid is always worth reading, but this one left me wondering if a modicum of common sense exists anywhere along the Ventura Highway.  ★★★ ½  


Rob Weir