Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the https://www.alternateending.com/2014/09/sin-you-went-away.html blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, we return to the charming world of Basin City, where men are brutal nihilists and women are slutty slutwhores and buildings are CGI. All this was a little fresher last time around.

There's such a huge gap between the experience of watching Sin City when it was new in 2005, and the experience of watching it almost a full decade later, it feels like two entirely different movies, damn near. Thus it is with films which were at one point on the technological bleeding edge - and oh, how very bloody that edge was in the case of Sin City when it was new. It's almost quaint to think of it now, but there was a time when a "live-action" movie that took place almost entirely in CGI environments was enormously radical. Prior to Sin City, there had been the half-steps of George Lucas's Star Wars prequels, both of which (in those glory days, there was merely a "both", and we could still hold out hope that he'd right things) involved extensive use of CGI set-building; and in 2004, Kerry Conran wrote and directed Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the first American film with 100% digitally-created backdrops for its human actors to interact with; or rather, not to. And in the same year, the French Immortel and the Japanese Casshern were released, both of which also featured only synthetic sets.

But the Star Warses were unpleasantly eager to declare themselves tech demos with terrible narratives and insipid characters reluctantly tacked on, Sky Captain married truly exquisite, imaginative world building to a story that barely exists, and the foreign films made nary a ripple in the States, incapable of proving to Hollywood that an extraordinary new tool for making whole worlds without the tedious labor of making whole worlds now existed, and thus creating the rather dubious world in which we now live. That honor fell to Sin City, the first film of the lot to use this all-digital set creation because it served the greater purposes of the movie, rather than as an end in and of itself. Now that every single mainstream movie from the enormous effects-driven tentpoles to the modest character stories comes in with a sheen of computer-generated Vaseline over everything, it's easy to forget how astonishing this felt at the time; that a movie could and should create a completely synthetic world to provide the right environment for its story to thrive.

In the particular case of Sin City, that environment and that story (stories, rather) can be described in the same way: an amped-up exaggeration of the style, world, and moral ethos of film noir. It's asking far too much to suggest that the film is a parody of the genre, for Frank Miller, author and artist of the comic book series from which the film has been slavishly adapted, would not appear to have nearly enough of a sense of humor to write such a thing as a parody. But it is an exaggeration to the most absurd extremities, a kind of apotheosis of the curdled nihilism, violence, sexism, and urban rot that make up noir. The enormous stylisation - also slavishly adapted from the comics, which functionally serve as the movie's storyboards - is, likewise, an intensified version of the Expressionist photography that turned realistic urban settings into hellish, almost surreal spaces, rendered as little more than black and white lines and shapes with absolutely no room in between for shading, or for human habitation. Individual elements of color, mostly reds with some yellow, blue, and rarely green here or there, serve to provide some minute measure of respite from the savage black and white, a flicker of life whether in the form of love, death, or terror, anything that's not the sheer grinding agony of life in Basin City.

The film's overriding problem - assuming that the whole "ultra-nihilistic extreme expression of film noir style and morality" isn't a problem for you, as it is not for me (and making allowances for how the film watches in 2005 as opposed to 2014, I'm still quite a big fan of the movie) - is that it's so indebted to the comic books, adding nothing but motion and the various textures of the performances. The nominal director, Robert Rodriguez, does very little to the film other than facilitate it; the honorary directorial credit he gave to Miller (without which we would maybe not have Miller's putrid 2008 film of The Spirit, a film that blindly copies Sin City's aesthetic with an incomparably worst script and performances) admits as much, and the fact that the one scene "guest-directed" by Quentin Tarantino is indistinguishable from the rest of the film other than having a slightly looser performance from Benicio Del Toro speaks to how little personality the movie actually possesses that it didn't borrow from Miller.

And as we kind of knew in 2005, and know to an absolute dread certainty in 2014, borrowing personality from Frank Miller is a rather dubious thing to do. This shows in Sin City itself, which is good and bad almost entirely as a function of the quality of the original comic stories it's adapting: it's based on the first, third, and fourth "Sin City yarns", as Miller referred to them during the book's original run in the 1990s, apparently recognising that the word "stories" implies more structure and discipline than his feverish lashings of urban nightmare rage possessed. The first and third - "The Hard Goodbye" and "The Big Fat Kill" - are possibly the best of all seven Sin City miniarcs, in the tightness of their construction and the effectiveness of how Miller's art (which is literally re-created onscreen) works within the mood created by that story. The fourth - "That Yellow Bastard" - is, I would argue, the exact moment when you can watch the early Frank Miller who was largely good if thoroughly retrograde in some of his opinions about vigilante justice, women, and government, starts to turn into the sour-minded crank Frank Miller, who'd fully emerge in the final Sin City yarn, "Hell and Back", and would be responsible for the ghastly The Dark Knight Strikes Again and Holy Terror and the angry, unfunny pastiche All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder. And that plays off in the movie, as well, which somewhat awkwardly welds the three units into one film that presumably was meant to have the structural payoffs of Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, but doesn't get there. The first two segments (following two prologues), centering around Mickey Rourke's big menacing thug with a heart of gold Marv, and Clive Owen's hitman-in-hiding Dwight, are both delightful, nasty-minded wallows in excess, misanthropy, style. The third, with Bruce Willis as Hartigan, a disgraced cop sent to prison for taking down the psychopathic son of a powerful senator, only to emerge years later to protect the demure, almost fully-clothed stripper, Nancy (Jessica Alba) that he'd rescued as a girl, from the yellowish gnome-man (Nick Stahl) trying to kill them both... that part's just bleak and miserable and gross.

Of course, all of it's a little bleak and miserable and gross. There's a whole cannibalism subplot. But there's a difference between the grubbiness of the third sequence and the arch, even self-parodying way that it's depicted in the first two segments, with their geysers of white blood silhouetted against black, their armies of militant prostitutes (led by an absolutely terrific Rosario Dawson), their curt dialogue that suggests what happens when you take hard-boiled tough-guy slang and let it sit on the fire for another hour or two (Owen, grim and staring, never flexing his chin at all, is terrific at delivering this). Two-thirds of Sin City comes from a place of love and enthusiasm for the overblown possibilities of guttural, pitch-black noir, and that's the part that matter most, the part that especially benefits from the film's prideful creation of elaborate, wholly unpersuasive digital sets. When it's working, Sin City primarily resembles people giddily play-acting at being film noir toughies, everybody going as bad-ass as they can manage to top the actors that, in many cases, they weren't even performing against. It's extremeness and artifice take on an energy that's surprisingly playful, given how pitch-black everything is: so hyper-dramatic that even the most horrifying elements play as a sort of quiet camp rather than bland torture porn. The years have, alas! dulled it somewhat. But the bad-boy naughtiness still works, and if the film has suffered, it's only a victim of its own success.