This moody sci-fi mind-bender was a pleasure to revisit. Released a year before The Matrix, it explored some similar themes in its own unique way, and has aged really well. The special effects look a tad cheap and dated here and there, but because the story is set in a world that never sees the sun, the dimly lit environment does well to hide the imperfections. Visually, the film is a marvel, with many memorable images, fantastic noirish atmosphere and superb set design.
The film begins with a man (Rufus Sewell) waking up naked in a bathroom, with no memories of who he is or why there is a corpse of a young woman with creepy ritualistic circles carved into her body lying on the floor in his hotel number. Immediately after he gets a warning call from a stranger who tells him that there are people looking for him and that he must leave. He eventually figures out that his name is John Murdoch, that he’s got a wife (an adorably young Jennifer Connelly), and that he might be a suspect in recent brutal murders of several young women. This makes him of interest to Frank Bumstead (William Hurt), a policeman in charge of the case.
This alone could actually have been a premise for a decent detective thriller, but there’s a lot more going on in this movie. What John doesn’t know, and what we learn in the prologue, is that this is no ordinary city. The city and all of its inhabitants are in fact controlled by the Strangers, an alien race from another solar system who, for reasons that are never explained, are dying out. They possess a power of changing and shaping reality that they call “tuning”, and they left their home world to study human race in an attempt to figure out what makes them unique. They have a human helper, Dr Daniel Schreber, who incidentally is the same person who warns John to leave.
What follows is a suspenseful story of John trying to figure out who he is, what the hell is going on with the city, and what’s the deal with the persistent memories of a bright sunny place called Shell Beach he keeps getting. I’ve already said this but the moody, eerie, claustrophobic atmosphere that the film evokes is just awesome. The look of the place is predominantly 1940s, with some of the characters’ dialogue sounding like it was lifted from the movies of that era, but there are other elements and touches that make you constantly feel like something is just not adding up. The Strangers themselves are unsettling creations in black trench coats and with chalk-white faces (which have an explanation by the way that makes them even creepier).
Rufus Sewell is a curious choice for the lead as I’ve mostly seen him in bad guy roles. He’s got a naturally haunted look to him that fits the role, and because his features are kinda dark and sinister it adds ambiguity to the character whose past we know nothing about. Jennifer Connelly’s character is not all that well-developed beyond the loving concerned wife, but she is crucial in highlighting what the Strangers, in their quest to understand humanity, do not see. Kiefer Sutherland, who’ll probably be remembered most for his tough guy role on 24, was tons of fun to watch as a somewhat wimpy but wily doctor. His performance was eccentric, with lots of heavy breathing and weird… pauses… between the… words, but never grating.