“Dark City” was released on February 27, 1998, and it helped me fall in love with movies. It also sparked my interest in awards. During the same period I was wrestling with continued Emmy snubs for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Dark City” made me wonder how the Oscars could miss the boat on what is still one of the most visually and narratively innovative films I’ve seen. So on its 20th anniversary I decided to revisit the underrated science-fiction gem, which deserved Oscars 20 years ago.
“Dark City” was a unique amalgam of genres with elements of murder mystery, film noir, horror and sci-fi dystopia, using those tropes to examine human memory and how we construct and perform our identities. It was undoubtedly a tough sell for New Line Cinema, and even tougher when you consider that at the time “Titanic” was still swimming circles around other releases at the box office. Ultimately the film only grossed $14 million domestically and a total of $27 million worldwide against a production budget that also came in at $27 million.
The film stars a pre-“Man in the High Castle” Rufus Sewell as an amnesiac in a strange city where the sun never rises and he’s accused of multiple murders. His wife is played by a pre-“Beautiful Mind” Jennifer Connelly, a mysterious doctor is played by a pre-“24” Kiefer Sutherland, and the detective investigating the murders is William Hurt. It was directed by Australian filmmaker Alex Proyas, then known best for directing “The Crow,” the 1994 film on which lead actor Brandon Lee was accidentally killed. Proyas co-wrote “Dark City” with Lem Dobbs, who went on to write “The Limey,” and David S. Goyer, who subsequently found success as a writer on Christopher Nolan‘s Batman trilogy from 2005-2012.
In hindsight it’s easy to see how a genre movie released in February to limited fanfare would miss out on Oscars, but forget about marquee categories like Best Picture and Best Director. If nothing else “Dark City” is a beautiful film that should have made a killing below the line. First and foremost it’s distinguished by extraordinary production design by George Liddle and Patrick Tatopoulos, showcased with low-angle shots that highlight the impeccable visual details of their world-building; the city is imagined as a pastiche of 1940s film noir and silent-era sci-fi — Fritz Lang‘s “Metropolis” was a strong influence on its visual style.
The unsettling mood is enhanced by the shadowy cinematography of Dariusz Wolski, and the story moves with the hard-charging urgency of a chase movie with help from Dov Hoenig‘s editing and Trevor Jones‘s intense score. Hoenig had previously earned an Oscar nomination for editing “The Fugitive” (1993), while Jones earned a couple of Golden Globe noms as a composer (“The Last of the Mohicans,” 1992) and songwriter (the title song from “The Mighty,” 1998).
Even the sound design and visual effects are immersive. That’s seven worthy nominations right there before you even leave the craft categories, and re-watching it in 2018 I can even see some of its stylistic fingerprints on the work of this year’s Oscar nominees. It feels like Nolan’s Gotham City crossed with the heady storytelling of Nolan’s “Inception” and the meticulous visual details of Guillermo Del Toro‘s “Shape of Water.” I couldn’t say whether Nolan or Del Toro were influenced by “Dark City” or even saw it. Perhaps it’s simply that great minds think alike.