If nothing else, Dark City (New Line) is proof of what an eye-popping cornucopia of druggy science-fiction imagery can now be jammed into a single fantasy film. It’s also proof of what little impact such imagery will make if we have no investment in the story it’s decorating. In a spectacularly sunless, floating urban doomscape, the humans become guinea pigs for a tribe of ghostly aliens — bald, white-faced phantoms who wear black overcoats and speak in doleful British accents. (They’re like a race of Nosferatus all yearning to play Hamlet.) The aliens are obsessed with that musty Spockian query, What is it that makes humans…human? To find the answer, they extract the memories of their subjects and inject them into other bodies. The hero (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a bathtub only to discover that he has been given the mind of a serial killer.
Directed by Australia’s Alex Proyas, who debuted with The Crow, Dark City might be described as techno-Goth music-video noir. A tinpot amalgam of Blade Runner and Strange Days, with an attention-deficit style of editing (these aren’t jump cuts, they’re jitter cuts) and sets that look like sets, the movie features some dazzling hallucinogenic nightmare visions, and at least one recurring image that’s memorable: Skyscrapers rise up out of the streets, as the city ”remakes” itself in tandem with the humans’ shifting mental landscapes. At the same time, Proyas can’t tell a straight story, and even his most arresting images are derivative (that churning-building stuff is cribbed from the pirate-ship fantasia Terry Gilliam designed for Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life). Rufus Sewell, with his Romanesque handsomeness, has an alluringly tormented presence, but he’s playing a cipher — a man robbed of memory, and of dramatic dimension, too. Dark City is so busy trying to blow your mind it never reveals a mind of its own. C+