This year marks the 20th anniversary of director Alex Proyas’ groundbreaking and infinitely inventive noir/sci-fi mash-up Dark City. When it was first released, this deliciously dark and trippy tale about a cabal of mysterious pale aliens reorganizing the memories of the citizens of a prototypical ’40s noir city—and of the resistance of one man (Rufus Sewell) against their powers—didn’t exactly rock the box office. It reportedly cost $27 million to produce, and broke even with a $27 million worldwide take.
Classic movie fans who love 1920s German expressionism and 1940s American noir cinema were immediately smitten with Proyas’ seamless merging of the two styles. Yet Dark City wasn’t just a crafty homage to such films; it was also an exceptional realization of a terrific screenplay that delivered genuine genre mystery and thrills, and packed quite a punch with its shocking third act twist. This was a unique vision that took established cinematic art styles and managed to create its own universe with its own specific lore, all the while tastefully referencing the old styles from which it lovingly borrowed.
Despite the lackluster box office, a vocal minority of fans considered Dark City a masterpiece—Roger Ebert named it the best film of 1998 and recorded a glowing commentary on the DVD. Still, Proyas had issues with studio interference that he thought ruined some sections of his film. Ten years after its theatrical release, Proyas was able to release his Director’s Cut on home video. Nowadays, it’s possible to get your hands on both versions, either on physical media or streaming, but if this is your first experience with Dark City, which one should you spend your two hours on?
Theatrical Vs. Director’s
There are some color correction differences and special effects fixes between the two cuts, most of which wouldn’t be recognizable to the general audience. Proyas doesn’t go Star Wars Special Edition on us with his special effects tinkering, opting only to mildly enhance some visuals, like the ripple effect that takes place whenever a character is “tuning,” the term for being able to transform the city after tapping into its mysterious core full of telekinetic power. The director’s cut has a slightly grayer look, but the barely recognizable difference in either color palette doesn’t necessarily dictate which cut should be prioritized.
The most noticeable difference between the movie’s theatrical and director’s cuts is found in the opening scene. Proyas, and a lot of Dark City fans, have always complained about the expositional voice-over that opens the theatrical cut. In it, the shifty, Peter Lorre-like Doctor Schreiber (Kiefer Sutherland in one of the most transformative performances of his career) pretty much lays out the premise of the film. As clunky as this voice-over is, and even though it spoils some of the story’s mystery, it doesn’t really give the viewer a clear picture on how the mind-bending practices explained during the voice-over will be executed. The sheer visual creativity, as well as the myriad twists that are to come, leaves plenty of room for discovery and amazement.
What follows the voice-over in the theatrical cut is a great pre-title hook that shows the citizens of the city all falling asleep at the same time. It’s an eerie, borderline terrifying image that piques viewer interest, despite the exposition that precedes it. The director’s cut gets rid of both the voice-over and the hook, merely showing Dr. Schreiber looking suspicious and checking his watch. I understand Proyas’ need to take out the voice-over and the hook in order to maximize the mystery of the story, but the absence of a better hook leaves the viewer with an awkward scene of what seems to be a random character merely looking at his watch and exiting the scene. It might have been a better idea to begin the director’s cut immediately with Sewell’s amnesia-ridden character, John Murdoch, waking up in the bathtub.
The director’s cut has some added and extended scenes that embellish character development, but which are not important enough to justify messing with the theatrical cut’s perfect pacing. The relationship between an officer (William Hurt) on John’s case and John’s sultry but melancholy wife (Jennifer Connelly) as they contemplate the meaning of their memories, is a bit more expanded. This in turn expands the film’s themes regarding the nature of the human soul, though they are also not entirely necessary to the story’s flow. (There’s another added scene where John uses his telekinetic power on Schreiber which is completely unnecessary, since the audience and Schreiber are already fully aware of John’s powers at that point.)
So, which version should you watch? Ultimately, this is a case where the theatrical release wins out over the director’s cut. Yes, the voice-over may be a bit unnecessary, but its presence is less of a loss than the absence of the superb opening hook of the theatrical cut. In a perfect world, there’s a cut without the voice-over but with the hook. Lacking that, the nod goes to the excellent pacing of the original release. Or you can actually check it out yourself, for while both cuts of Dark City are available on DVD and Blu-ray, the Blu-ray release of the director’s cut also lets you watch the theatrical version. If streaming is your route, you’ll have to rent or buy either cut separately. (The director’s cut is clearly defined as such in the streaming title.) Both cuts are available to rent or buy on iTunes, and can be purchased on Fandango and Vudu, where you can find them here.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He works as a reader for some of the leading screenplay coverage companies in Hollywood, and is also a film critic for The Playlist, DVD Talk and Beyazperde. He has a BA in Film Theory and an MFA in Screenwriting. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.