Just what makes a human “human?” That is the primary conceit of the film ‘Dark City.’ Writer and director Alex Proyas – who also directed ‘The Crow’ and ‘I, Robot’ – brings viewers a visually-stunning film set in a noir-heavy landscape coupled with elements of mystery, death, strange beings, and a constant nightmare-like state.

John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up to find himself in a room with a murdered woman. Not knowing who he is and what has happened, John spends the rest of the movie attempting to piece together this very important information. As he works to uncover what has happened to him, he witnesses the strange ritual of time halting at the stroke of Midnight; when time freezes, beings called Strangers come and alter the city and the people that live in it: new lifestyles are given and different personalities are injected into the citizens, entirely wiping their old memories. These experiments continue each night in order for the Strangers, who are in actuality a dying alien race, to learn about humans and their individuality and souls, with the intentions of replicating the process for themselves. During the Midnight hour, everyone falls asleep except John. He seems to be the only person the Strangers cannot control. He soon finds himself able to manipulate things by using a form of psychokinetic powers that the aliens also possess.

Along the way, viewers are treated to a stellar cast.  During his journey, Murdoch discovers that he has a wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly). Also involved in his story are Bumstead (William Hurt), an inspector that believes John is the serial killer that is performing grisly murders, and a mysterious Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), who the Strangers use to participate in the nightly experiments.

Proyas produces a wonderfully dark atmosphere, very reminiscent of his work in ‘The Crow,’ to aid in the “creep factor” of the film. The mysterious Strangers are aliens using dead humans’ bodies as hosts; their pale and chalky skin, bald heads, and long black coats and hats go perfectly with the odd clicking noises they make.

Great acting and a complex plot keep the story driven. The wonderful Connelly plays Emma extremely effectively, and William Hurt performs the role of Inspector Bumstead with his usual aplomb. Add a dash of strange with Sutherland as the quirky Dr. Schreber, and you have an incredibly well-rounded cast. Perhaps my favorite is Richard O’Brien as one of the Strangers named Mr. Hand, who has a personal interest in Murdoch. O’Brien is of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ fame and fits in great with the morbid ambiance of his character. I admit I kept seeing him singing “The Time Warp” in my head, but all joking aside, his portrayal of the alien was spot-on, and he brought the necessary dread and chill to this particular role.

Proyas gives us a wonderful, vivid, and dark film that kept me pulled in from beginning to end. Like candy for the brain, ‘Dark City’ pulled all the punches necessary to become what is now a cult classic. Great acting, sets, and effects all made me want more. And did I mention there’s an evil alien-inhabited kid, too? Yeah, it’s got that going for it, also. Lots to love here, folks.

There are two sides to this film. On one hand, you have a very sci-fi type of approach, with the aliens using humans in experiments for their prosperity. On the other hand, though, we are given a very humanistic story about the search for what makes us “tick.” I believe the search for humanity, for our soul, is one that has been going on for centuries, maybe even since we have existed. Exploring this subject is not new material, which does give it some added realism. Humans want to know what makes us the way we are, so it would be understandable that the aliens would want that knowledge, too.

There are many themes in this film, and it was successfully able to house many sub-plots. It wasn’t so complicated that I couldn’t keep up with it, yet it wasn’t so simple that I was bored. A good balance of mystery, love, and terror brought this film to life. I felt for the poor people in this sad city. Proyas clearly has the ability to visually present viewers with his vision in a grand and imaginative way. There is a recurring visual theme of spirals throughout the movie: pay close attention, they can be spotted in many different scenes. The nightly morphing of the landscape, with buildings blossoming and terrain constantly changing, was spectacular. Under the ground where the Strangers would meet as a collective, the idea of one mind controlling everything was conveyed with the giant sculpture of a head that would split open to present a clock that stopped time and, consequently, the humans’ lives. From the gritty, noir feel to the hope found in the memory of sunlight, Proyas did a fantastic job on this one.

A fascinating tale, ‘Dark City’ is an overall delight. With a satisfying conclusion and a superb cast, I recommend this movie for a Saturday night, stay-at-home, popcorn-filled evening. Enjoy!