Posts tagged ‘Viewing’

August 20, 2014

Viewing: Dark City (1998)

by Suzy Walker-Toye

***This review contains spoilers***

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In the planning stage for my assignment 2 I did an internet search on paranoia in films just to see what would come up. One of the links I found was this top ten list of paranoid filled movies. I remember really enjoying Dark City when I first watched it (many years ago) so I took this opportunity to revisit the film with a more critical eye. The exercises in the lead up to A2 have been around mise-en-scène, compositional rules, colour & tone, and lighting so I tried to keep those in mind as I watched (and anything else that might help me out in my atmospheric A2).

There are many plot synopses of this film already online so I won’t go into too much detail on that, this is more a review about what I noticed about the film. Essentially though, an alien race, the strangers, have the ability to stop time and change the layout of the city (they call this tuning). They have set out an elaborate experiment on the human inhabitants, wiping their memories each night and replacing them with others to see what they will do. One man, John Murdoch, wakes up with the abilities to tune as the strangers do but with no memories, on the run from the police (because he was about to be imprinted with the memories of a murderer), he tries to find out who he is and what is going on in this city. One thing to note also is that I watched the cinematic cut not the director’s cut (which I read about afterwards and is apparently quite different), my dvd only had the one version on it.

One of the main things about this film is that the story is set in a city that is in perpetual night time so all of the film (except the end) is shot with artificial lighting. The tone of the film is dark & moody with dark green tones in backdrops and warm light with strong contrast on the human characters faces. There are lots of shadows (as one might expect of a film with this name). The mise-en-scène of the city shots looks like something out of an Edward Hopper painting (but a lot more dark & brooding, with less colours). I love this quote from another review I read:

“Its vast noir metropolis seems to exist in an alternate time line, with elements of our present and past combined with visions from a futuristic comic book.”

(source)

DarkCityScreenshot-6 The strangers live under the city and you see them in a sort of subterranean auditorium. When the scenes switch here the tone & colour of the film is noticeable much cooler and bluer. The strangers have pale white faces and all look and dress very similar, this adds to the unease of these scenes. The mise-en-scène of these shots are very sparse, you don’t get a sense of them at all. Just rows and rows of almost identical people. The light on their faces is also a cold blue, emphasising their pale features and its often lit from below to make them even more strange and sinister. DarkCityScreenshot-12
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Unlike in the streets above where there are streetlamps and lit up storefronts, here it’s not obvious there the illumination is coming from. When the action is ramping up, while they do the tuning and change the city layout, there is lots of quick cuts between the blue under the ground and the yellow above at street level scenes which provides a nice visual contrast (when I noticed this I felt pleased with myself for already having the quick cuts and the colour changes in my A2 planning, otherwise I would have added it).

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The only thing that is really a normal colour is the memories and the ending because they are in the daylight. The memories are denoted with a strange circular blurring effect around the edges (like a lens baby might create) and a sound effect so that you know they are memories (it’s more effective and less corny than I just made it sound though).

 

 

Throughout the movie I noticed that the mise-en-scène of the interiors was only the barest minimum the scene needed, by which I mean because each scene is actually an interior that the strangers had to construct and fill with items that they thought relevant it is all detail which they would have needed to go to the extra effort of thinking and making for the human experiment. I noticed there was a lot of repeating motifs in the set design too, archways and circles and very geometric shapes for both internal and external scenes – as if the whole city had been designed by one collective mind (which its revealed later that it has). There are a lot of centre of the frame compositions and many scenes filmed over the shoulder of another character, or down a long corridor with steep perspective or through a doorway or archway with another character silhouetted so you could see past them. It seemed to add to the claustrophobic atmosphere of being penned in on all sides by this fake city, or going miles to nowhere down a long street or corridor. I put some screenshots I took of this below (I really need to find a better way to screen grab than my iPhone) although there are much better ones here.

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The whole film has been building to this, the final scenes are all in blazing daylight but the centrally based compositions and perspective shots maintain the look of the film even with the darkness alleviated.

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