Sadly not available in 4K HDR yet but rather “only” full HD SDR Blu-ray, Dark City* stands as a textbook example of how to show off contrast. The very simple title of this 1998 movie belies a masterwork of cinematography by Dariusz Wolski, who previously worked with director Alex Proyas on the equally noir The Crow from 1994.
Dark City combines influences from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and earlier sci fi noir movies with the late 1990s/early 2000s wave of “is it all real?” movies, which included The Matrix, The 13th Floor, The Game, Avalon, and Vanilla Sky among others. Don’t expect lots of mega corporations, androids, and flashy neon supercities, though. Dark City is a low-key, smaller budget production that achieves its goals by manipulating light, above all else.
Indeed, Dark City stands out for its highly focused obsession with contrast, and so you’ll need a good projector worthy of the challenge, whether watching the Blu-ray version or streaming from Netflix. Projectors capable of smart HDR will be able to enhance the default Blu-ray image and provide a more impressive rendition of Dark City, even if it’s not in actual HDR.
*Note: not to be confused with the 1950 movie Dark City starring Charlton Heston and Lizabeth Scott.
As the film’s title suggests, the story takes place in a city shrouded by darkness and what might be eternal night. Thankfully for filmmakers and viewers alike, the city has lots of electricity, so we get a dazzling display of 1940s-style urban landscapes with concrete skyscrapers, elevated trains, and clunky automobiles. All have their own light sources to pierce the darkness, with shadows playing a role as important as that of the main characters.
Fans of cinematography and the balance of light and dark owe it to themselves to watch Dark City over and over again. This movie is taught at every film school on the planet for good reason. Additionally, there’s little CGI on show. Everything happens in-camera and the city is mostly practical models as opposed to digital artwork. This lends Dark City a very substantive, tactile feel that makes the conflict between light and shadow even more impressive.
Light and dark and their interaction help drive the plot of Dark City, which revolves around one John Murdoch, a man who seems to have lost his memory. Played by Rufus Sewell, John serves as the usual audience everyman stand-in as we try to figure out what’s going on in the nameless city. Additional cast members include Jennifer Connelly, Kiefer Sutherland, and William Hurt, and all do an excellent job of playing characters that subvert cinema noir standards. All of them focus on looking for what’s really going on as increasingly they lose faith in the world around them.
While nearly black and white in photographic approach, Dark City has spurts of color that stand out when they appear. There are also momentary glimpses of an opposite place that’s the polar reverse of the dark city. This sun-drenched beach scene appears in sporadic memories felt by several characters, and on its own makes a case for Dark City to finally get the 4K HDR treatment.
By now a cult classic of noir sci fi, Dark City accomplished much by inspiring The Matrix and even video games like Bioshock. If you haven’t enjoyed it yet, please pencil in some time to appreciate this somber but beautiful masterpiece. You can currently get the Blu-ray 1080p version.