|[I don't know if the version I saw was the director's cut...]|
Dark City is a beautiful film, Dark City is an interesting film, Dark City is a good, but most of all, Dark City is an underrated film.
It's not hard to see how and why it was elbowed so cruelly from the limelight that it so clearly deserved; Dark City was filmed at almost exactly the same time as the Matrix, it was filmed using many of the same sets as the Matrix, it shared many of the same concerns as the Matrix. In fact, watching it after having seen the Matrix, you might easily think that they'd lifted large quantities from the Matrix.
Both films show us a world in which the naive citizens are unaware of the scheme which they are a part of, a world which strange characters with a collective consciousness control, alter and move through as they please, a world where one somewhat unwilling hero represents the hope for humanity by escaping from the confines of his artificial-reality prison. Yes, the two films are really that similar.
There are, despite this, many diferences too. Part of the central thrill of the Matrix (and no-doubt a key factor in it's success) is how intune it was with technology and our paranoia about computers and computer control. Whilst the Matrix is a virtual reality prison, Dark City relies on much more traditional (and so prosaic) fears. Here, rather than robot 'agents', the fake city is manipulated by aliens who are studying humans, each night they alter the city, fiddling with individual memories and observing our reactions. They turn rich into poor, poor into rich, invent backstories of happy summers and tragic memories. If anything, this is more threatening than the Matrix; our lives are not simply faked from day one, but altered every night without our knowing. Every single memory you have may well be artficial.
So why wasn't it as successful as the Matrix? Visually, though very different, it is absolutely on par, for all the leather-clad cool of the Wachowski Bros. offering, here we have a city of film noir beauty, all night-time streets, phosphorescant street-lamps and chain-smoking detectives. So what WAS the crucial deciding factor? (For the purposes of artistic interest we are ignoring anything as dull as advertising budgets etc)
The answer, to my mind at least, is that there is very little between the films in terms of real merit, but only in terms of their awareness of the interests of the age (or the zeitgeist if you will...). The Matrix tapped perfectly into our interest at the time of release; where technology was on a balancing point between the realm of the hacker uber-nerd (Neo) and a means of control. Much as the zombie movies of the 70s mirrored Cold-War nuke paranoir, the Matrix excited us because it was able to tap into our fears at time. By comparison, however good a film Dark City may be (and it IS a good film) its aliens, its detectives and its film-noir atmosphere were far less striking.
Oh yeah, all that and the fact that it gets pretty silly towards the end...
Definitely worth a watch though.