Dark City
Starring Rufus Sewell, William Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, Richard O’Brien, Colin Friels and Ian Richardson. Directed by Alex Proyas. New Line Home Video, Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Alex Proyas’ Dark City was released theatrically a little over 10 years ago. It was poorly marketed: The studio made it seem more like a horror film than a noirish, metaphysical science fiction story. Despite some glowing reviews — I had it on my Top 10, but, more importantly, Roger Ebert had it as his No. 1 of the year — it took the subsequent DVD release to find its true audience.

Now, New Line Home Video — as one of its last gasps before final absorption into Warner HV — has put out a new director’s cut edition on both DVD and Blu-ray.

Dark City wasn’t blatantly based on a Philip K. Dick book, but, like The Matrix, it may be closer in spirit to his works than any of the official adaptations. It opens with a setup that is both classic film noir and perfectly Dickian: John Murdoch (Brit actor Rufus Sewell) awakens in a strange hotel room with no idea how he got there or, for that matter, who he is or why there is a dead prostitute in the room. A phone call warns him to leave at once; he escapes just before the arrival of a bunch of sinister, deathly pale men, who look precisely like Christopher Lloyd’s Judge Doom in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

In fairly short order, Murdoch is being chased both by the Strangers (as the film comes to refer to these weird ghouls) and by the police, led by the accordion-playing Detective Bumstead (William Hurt), who suspects him of a series of murders. Murdoch can’t be sure he’s not guilty, even as he begins to recover brief flashes of his memories, helped along by his torch-singer wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly), and by his “therapist,” the bizarre Dr. Shreber (Kiefer Sutherland).

Much as Ridley Scott had to add the lame voiceover to Blade Runner, so Proyas agreed (apparently with subsequent regrets) to have Sutherland do a voiceover for the opening shot, explaining what’s really going on. The studio was afraid audiences would be confused at first — apparently missing the point that they were supposed to be confused. It’s a mystery! Things are relatively clear by the end. The central suspense was terribly compromised.

Fans will be delighted to know the first and most obvious change is the removal of that voiceover and some other “dumbed down” explanatory material in the early parts of the film.

The director’s cut runs about 11 minutes longer, with most of the expansion coming in little pieces that add grace notes or make the pacing a little less frenetic. Other changes are slightly more obvious: Jennifer Connelly’s singing voice in her nightclub scenes had been replaced by someone else in the theatrical cut; here, her vocals have been restored. She sings fairly nicely; if her voice isn’t slickly professional, well, that makes perfect sense in terms of the plot.

The new disc includes both versions of the movie. Each has its own set of extras; those for the theatrical cut — a commentary track with Proyas and collaborators, a critical commentary track by Ebert and some trivial text screens — seem to have been ported over, unchanged, from the original 1998 DVD release. The director’s cut is accompanied by an hour and 20 minutes of new documentaries, an intro by Proyas and Ebert, a retrospective making-of and a more analytical examination of the themes.

There are three new commentary tracks — one by Proyas, one by screenwriters Lem Dobbs (Kafka) and David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight) and one by Ebert. The last should really be described as “newish”: Most of the material is new, but some has been lifted from his earlier track. It is delightful that, despite his recent health problems, Ebert was able to contribute; it takes maybe 10 seconds to get used to his new, softer voice.

As for the look and sound of the new version: I watched the Blu-ray version and found it substantially better than the DVD, which was, in its time, a state-of-the-art transfer. Dark City is, as the title suggests, dark — way, way dark — and benefits more than usual from a high-def treatment. To be fair, however, buyers might want to take a look at the debate going on at avsforum.com about the processing of the image. Some find the level of artificial smoothing applied to the image to be unacceptable, with almost no film grain in the texture, leaving faces waxy-looking. On principle, I’m strongly opposed to any meddling that reduces grain, which is one of the central elements that distinguish film from video. But, in practical terms, I was unbothered by the problem here and almost certainly wouldn’t have noticed it if it hadn’t been pointed out.