I was bantering with some friends recently about True Blood, and how this season feels different from the previous one. There is a lot more emphasis on vampire political and para-military shenanigans, and less on messy or convoluted love triangles. It’s a shift in tone that, personally, I am 100% behind, and it makes me invested in seeing what happens week to week. It has me thinking about tonal shifts in storytelling in general, when it works, and when it doesn’t. If you plan on writing more than one thing in your lifetime, you may see tones shifting in your own work, by accident or by design.
Movie sequels can see major tonal shifts. Alien was a spookhouse horror in space, while Aliens was action-packed suspense. The shift in tone works, though, because elements remained consistent and the storytelling was solid. You have a strong female protagonist, icky xenomorphs, shifty androids, and corporate douchebaggery. I hear Prometheus contains all of those elements1 but keeping some names the same between tales does not guarantee a solid shift in tone.
Consider The Matrix. It began as a very solid near-future tale of mystery and self-discovery, but the sequels suffer from their shift in tone. Instead of focusing on the characters and meaningful expansions on the world they inhabit, the second and third films let the bulk of their time become dominated by action sequences and terrible philosophy. Whenever they shift between those two elements, there’s an almost audible clunk, like a transmission that’s about to fall out of the bottom of your car. It’s damn close to painful, and it’s evidence of tonal shifts being handled badly.
Good stories aren’t just one thing all the time the entire way through. Your characters should experience a mix of emotions, bringing the audience along for the ride, and that means the tone of the story is going to change from time to time. While they might not always see it coming, the shifts should feel natural, and flow with the story and the unfolding personalities of the characters. Good examples of characters who experience these shifts well include Harry Dresden and Coburn the vampire.
You do have to be careful, though, as jarring shifts can stop your story dead. It can be very hard to balance comedy with tragedy, and messing it up is a death sentence. You can’t have Oskar Schindler suddenly break into a rendition of ‘Singing in the Rain’ in the middle of trying to rescue Jews from concentration camps. If your story’s been consistently light-hearted, interrupting a slapstick routine with the news someone has inoperable colon cancer will go over about as well as a lead balloon. While these things can work, they’re very easy to mishandle and I would advise extreme caution. Your audience is paying for the ride they’re taking with you; if they’ve felt you’ve driven them off the road into a ditch filled with brambles, they’ll be sure to let you know it.
What are some of your favorite, or least favorite, shifts in tone?
1 I still haven’t seen Prometheus yet. I may just have to suck it up and go alone to see it.
In the course of writing this review, things have gone on a lot longer than I thought they would. So I’m not going to waste any more of your time than necessary today, folks. It’s way too nice outside in eastern Pennsylvania, anyway. So, without further adieu, here follows my review of Dark City, or as I also know it, The Movie The Matrix Tried Really Hard To Be Only To Fail Miserably Especially Due To Two Over-Complicated And Ultimately Useless Sequels.
The film opens with a man in a bathtub, who wakes to find blood on his forehead and a complete lack of memories. He’s in a hotel room and he receives a phone call telling him that he needs to run, as someone is coming for him who should not find him. Since he also happens to find the mutilated body of a call girl in the bedroom, he doesn’t need to be told twice. He makes his way into the night-time city streets and begins a search for his own identity, which is tied to the mysterious Strangers who are looking for him. A fastidious police detective is hot on his trail, his estranged wife is confused by what’s happening to him, and the psychiatrist who called him to warn him about the Strangers clearly knows more than he’s telling.
And so do I. This is one of those “see it for yourself, that’s all I’m gonna tell you” situations. Those of you who might’ve seen Dark City before probably know why I’m being tight-lipped about the plot, and those of you who haven’t are best served going into this one cold. So rather than talk about the plot’s threads and nuances, allow me a moment to talk about Alex Proyas, the writer and director. His previous work that put him on the map was his film adaptation of James O’Barr’s The Crow. You know, The Crow, Brandon Lee’s last film, perhaps the best heroic-vengeance-from-beyond-the-grave flick ever made? Alex’s type of aesthetic and directorial style shines again in Dark City, which is an ironic choice of words considering how prevalent night-time and the shadows are. Still, it’s a vision that’s every bit as unique as The Crow, and this one sprang like a gothic goddess fully formed from Alex’s head.
One of the things Proyas does best is atmosphere, and Dark City is steeped in it. The architecture, the fog, the clothes and the set design all create a setting that is simultaneously old-fashioned and timeless, both noir and fantastical. And this is before everything begins to change. The way in which the growing buildings, altered states of people’s lives and the manner in which things are altered in this city are rendered in a way that still holds up ten years later. Other than the Strangers choosing to use knives rather than relying on their preternatural abilities, there’s nothing dated or laughable about this film or its design despite its age. Like Blade Runner, it’s going to last quite a long time.
He might not look the hero type, but just wait…
Another crucial and brilliant component of this film is its cast. Now, I know some people out there weren’t fond of Rufus Sewell’s performance in Dark City, saying he was flat and unemotional. I disagree. For the most part, Rufus’ character needs to rediscover his emotions along with his memories, and since he’s a relatively intelligent guy, he’s doing so in an analytical manner, and to me, he’s never dull and always interesting to watch. William Hurt’s detective is not just interesting, he’s a joy, the sort of smart, hard-nosed cop who just wants the truth no matter what he has to do to get it. Kiefer Sutherland shows a lot of the range that has gone unnoticed during his years as Jack Bauer, here playing a very clever if somewhat cowardly psychiatrist who’s got a particular angle on the whole situation. And Alex Proyas did the entire human race a favor by putting Jennifer Connelly in some slinky lounge singer attire for a few scenes. I mean, she’s a fine actress and I’ve enjoyed just about everything she’s been in including Ang Lee’s Hulk, but damn the girl can burn up a screen.
The real stand-out for me, though, is Richard O’Brien. Savvy watchers, listeners or readers may recognize him as the guy who played Riff Raff in the cult classic phenomenon The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But if you’re expecting camp or humor from him in this film, you are in for a shock. Mr. Hand, his character, is quiet, menacing, thoroughly creepy and disturbingly polite. He’s one of the most effective villainous henchmen I’ve seen in quite some time. He actually comes across as more interesting and more dangerous than the lead villain, Mr. Book (although Ian Richardson does give the big guy some impressive gravitas), and to this day, when he stalks onto the screen, I get chills.
Seriously. He’s extremely creepy.
I mention that this is the movie The Matrix could have been. Allow me to elaborate on that point for a moment, if you’ll indulge me. The ‘everything you know is a lie’ trick isn’t anything new in cinema. Both Dark City and The Matrix pull the trick for different reasons and while it works in both films, it feels more effective in this one than in The Matrix. I think I can explain why I feel this way without invoking the unfortunate sequels to the latter film. In The Matrix, apart from the clear post-modern philosophical influence primarily attributed to Jean Baudrillard, the dichotomy of the world in which we’re introduced to the characters and the truth behind that world serves as yet another cautionary tale against the emergence of artificial intelligence and how it will doom humanity to servitude or worse to protect humanity from itself. And in the light of the BP oil spill, can you really blame intelligent machines from thinking we’re pretty bad for the planet in general and our existence on it in particular? But I digress.
Proyas doesn’t seem to have a major philosophical influence or point to make, other than supporting a Descartian view of thought informing action and the dichotomy of the body and mind. Rather than concerning itself with delivering jargon salient to this point, Dark City simply presents its characters and themes as they are, baldly stated without hyperbole except for the whole psychic powers angle. The Strangers seem primarily concerned with trying to comprehend minds outside of their own, thus representing solipsism on one side of the debate. While they exist in harmony with what they create, they cannot be certain that those beings that exist within their creation are as real as their own mind. Meanwhile, the characters within the city who are of interest to the Strangers appear to represent a dualist point of view, where all things that exist (implying that they believe the things outside themselves are certain to exist) have a separation between concept and form, between an individual’s body and their anima or animus, to use Jungian terms. I know I’m verging into deep philosophical waters and might be losing some people, and I could probably talk for hours about this stuff, but I think I’ve made my point – Dark City is a lot more interesting than The Matrix, and The Matrix could have been just as interesting if it weren’t based on bad philosophy.
Do you think CTU would have operated better with Strangers in the ranks?
Pseudo-intellectualism aside, if you have the opportunity, see the director’s cut of Dark City. The theatrical release is by no means bad. The characters, themes, action and storytelling are all intact. What the director’s cut adds is an extra bit of depth, another layer of atmosphere and a slightly less disjointed pace. It takes its time a bit more, setting up the story on the assumption that we’re intelligent people and we don’t need to be told what we’re going to see – we just need to be shown. I get the feeling that the theatrical release was cut the way it was so that Bubba Joe McMoviewatcher wouldn’t be completely lost in the plot’s turns and spirals. But I’ve become something of a story snob since I started reviewing things seriously, so take that opinion for what you will.
I guess what I’m trying to drive at in the midst of all of this is that Dark City is a fantastic film. It ranks highly among other innovative science fiction films like Blade Runner and District 9. The director’s cut, especially, is a highly enjoyable experience in visual storytelling, and it’s not the kind of film where you need to switch off your brain. In fact, the more you engage your mind while watching Dark City, the more you’ll take away from the experience. It’s intelligent, well-shot, well-paced, well-acted visual storytelling. Get it from Netflix, or hell, buy it outright, because you’re getting a lot for your money. I mean, what else is out there that’s worth putting your entertainment money into (other than Splice, apparently)?
Another Super Mario game? A Justin Bieber album? Marmaduke?
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.