Unlike most of the other guys of my generation who grew up addicted to movies, I don't have any special interest in or fondness for science fiction. My irrational nostalgic attachments are mostly reserved for horror movies and their monsters, so after four decades of sci-fi nerds recommending this and that, under the assumption that I am one of them, I consider them untrustworthy curators. When a movie like Dark City gets consistently hailed as an overlooked sci-fi classic, it holds no sway with me; I assume it's the myopic ravings of an indiscriminate fanatic, and I expect to be underwhelmed.
As far as these types of movies tend to go with me, Dark City isn't bad. It's got eye-catching production design — kind of a low budget Gotham City-meets-Metropolis — that makes sense as an aesthetic nightmare, and dependable actors like Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly and William Hurt are capable of believing in this world that their characters simultaneously learn to doubt. I also like that it beats the wildly overrated The Matrix to the screen by one year with a more or less similar plot and fewer gimmicks and a less ugly look and not the worst actor of a generation in the lead role. And Dark City's floating bald villains are visually striking, and possibly inspired the eerie 'Gentlemen' from the popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode 'Hush.'
That's about it. Dark City has a lot of frills that thrill sci-fi fans but leave me wondering if it could've aimed higher, or deeper. Director Alex Proyas and his co-screenwriters Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer certainly concoct a mind-bendery unstable reality, but for what purpose? Does Dark City pose any interesting questions about memory, or self, or the nature of or the purpose behind its illusions? Does Sewell's character really struggle or deal with any provocative conflicts? Keifer Sutherland's doctor character reveals the film's most dramatic moment in a brief flashback, but to what effect? Is all of Dark City's elaborate design and trickery mustered solely for the platitude that human emotions/souls are too powerful to be manipulated by mental tinkering? (Is that even true? A more provocative movie might have taken the opposite approach.) Is there anything complicated in the movie's depiction of its villains and their goals (or any sense behind how their powerful but woefully inefficient technology works? Are they just pasty nerds playing games like The Sims and Minecraft?)? What is really at stake during the climactic whammy-battle? Who gets to manage the constructed reality? And what's the endgame of that scenario?
I suppose it could be my tone-deafness to sci-fi — and especially this specific type of 'mind-bender' sci-fi — but the surface tricks and special effects of movies like Dark City, while sometimes neatly and creatively done, don't interest me, because there are no probing ideas behind them to make them meaningful, and in fictional worlds more concerned with fantastical effects than with people, I am usually left grasping for any characters to care about, or any semblance of complicated human emotion or psychology. There's a definite degree of dorm room 'cool' to Dark City, but an even greater amount of dorm room superficiality, and that's a mostly empty experience for me.