The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents October 2008 Return to Table of Contents
Body of Lies
Production Slate
Post Focus
DVD Playback
Dark City
Dirty Harry
High and Low
ASC Close-Up
Dark City (1998)
Director’s Cut

2.35:1 (High-Definition 1080p)
DTS 7.1 Surround
New Line Home Video, $28.99

In the world of director Alex Proyas’ unusual science-fiction cult favorite Dark City (1998), confused amnesiac John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakens in the filthy bathtub of a hotel room. Unsure of where he is, he slips on his clothing, and as he dresses, the phone rings. On the line, a mysterious doctor, Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), explains to Murdoch that his memory has been erased, and he must leave the hotel room because men are coming for him. Terrified, Murdoch turns to see the mutilated body of a woman sprawled on the floor. As he breathlessly slips down the hotel’s shadowy hallway in time to see three pale-faced men emerging from the elevator, Murdoch realizes he must find the doctor who called him.

Later that evening, Det. Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) arrives at the hotel to investigate the murder, which seems to be a serial crime. The investigation leads him to Murdoch’s estranged wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly), who explains that her husband lost his mind and left her. Bumstead is not convinced Murdoch is the killer, and when he and Emma team up and locate Schreber, they are unaware that the shifty doctor is the lynchpin between the world of humans and the world of “The Strangers,” parasitic organisms that assimilate humans.

Each night, The Strangers “tune,” causing the human inhabitants of the city to fall asleep while The Strangers pillage their lives, implant and erase identities, and construct entirely new buildings and streets. The Strangers then “reset” the night, and the humans awaken. Then the aliens, led by the mysterious Mr. Hand (Richard O’Brien), hunt for their latest experiments, which include the unfortunate Murdoch.

Proyas pulled together an exceptional team of collaborators for Dark City, including production designers George Liddle and Patrick Tatopoulos and, most significantly, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, ASC (Sweeney Todd). Wolski’s unique approach to the material is one of Dark City’s signature qualities. The picture is divided into two specific looks: the dense realm of the city and the eerie underworld inhabited by The Strangers. Wolski worked primarily with streetlights to achieve the film’s unique look, using sodium-vapor lights to create a yellow-green palette for the city streets and then metal-halide fluorescent tubes to produce a blue-green look for the underworld. Both realms display a dark noir sensibility that also glows intensely with unhealthy hues.

New Line Home Entertainment recently issued Dark City in the Blu-ray format as the definitive director’s cut, and the package also includes the original theatrical version. When compared to the 1998 DVD, both presentations have an illuminating new picture and sound transfer that’s finely detailed, revealing more information in the layers of darkness. There is occasional evidence of digital noise-reduction tweaking, but the process never flattens or distorts the image, creating a generally pleasing and richly inky reproduction of the film. The audio transfer — a DTS 7.1 surround track — is exceptional and adds active surround channels and a serious punch to the music and directional effects throughout the film. 

This package’s generous supplements begin with numerous feature-length audio commentaries. The theatrical cut sports a choppy but interesting commentary track that includes Proyas, Wolski, Tatopoulos, writers Lem Dobbs and David Goyer, and critic Roger Ebert. The second commentary features an enthusiastic reading of the film by Ebert. Both of these tracks were borrowed from the 1998 DVD. The director’s cut offers a track with Proyas, a second track with Ebert doing a newer analysis of the director’s cut, and a screenwriters’ track that is, unfortunately, cribbed from the earlier recordings.

Also included are three new documentary segments: a five-minute introduction, the 44-minute “Memories of Shell Beach,” and the 34-minute “Architecture of Dreams,” a segment that features Proyas, Wolski, Dobbs, Goyer, Sewell, O’Brien, Ebert and numerous others. Rounding things out are the original theatrical trailer, a collection of production stills, text entries of reviews, and a nifty “fact track” that features pop-up boxes during the film that explain the differences between the two versions. A second disc in the package serves as a digital copy for home computers. 

This well-produced Blu-ray is a fine way to experience the nocturnal mysteries of Dark City for the first time, and longtime fans will be impressed with the revealing new transfer and director’s cut. With this DVD, Dark City’s shimmering layers of night can at last be enjoyed properly on home screens.

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