Friday, July 31, 2015
(Beware of spoilers!)
Ambiguity is scary.
That’s not merely a good riff in Mystery Science Theater 3000’s take-down of Manos the Hands of Fate.
It’s a fact of human existence.
We don’t fear what we know.
We fear what we don’t know.
And as fallible, mortal humans limited by our own field of vision and our own biases, we don’t always get answers to life’s greatest mysteries. Or even its tiniest ones. Sometimes, we must go on living with the knowledge that life is ambiguous.
Of course, man invented religion to make the scary ambiguities of existence tolerable. If we there is a God -- diving, loving, and good, watching over us at all times -- we don’t have to fear the things we don’t easily understand.
Instead, we can be comforted by the “fact” that there is a cosmic order, beyond our vision, which involves love, and justice. We can paint away ambiguity with phrases such as “God works in mysterious ways,” or “God has a plan for your life.”
But the best horror movies are invariably those that tread fully into life’s ambiguities.
This is why The Blair Witch Project (1999) is an authentic masterpiece. Many questions about the film’s narrative are left unanswered. Is there really a witch? Is she the reason why the filmmakers are hopelessly lost in the woods? What happens -- really -- to Heather, Josh, and Mike in that creepy house? Who murders them? The witch? Or a human being?
We see things happen on camera, and yet exactly why they happen is left purposefully unexplored.
By contrast, Paranormal Activity (2007) destroys all sense of ambiguity in its final act as a demon gets its close-up, front-and-center, on camera, satisfying the human psychological need to “see” the monster, and in the process, understand everything.
My point, I suppose is that ambiguity is real, and it is scary, and therefore it of good use to horror films.
More to the point, the way that horror movies often express ambiguity is by diagramming two possibilities at the same time, and never really settling on an answer.
Instead, we get competing theories.
And in a really good horror film of this type, both theories track, and don’t negate each other.
That’s the kind of movie Hollow (2012). This impressive and scary found footage movie treads deeply into ambiguity, and its story of horrific happenings can be interpreted in two very different ways.
Either this film is the story of a depressed, psychologically-disturbed young man who, after losing the girl of his dreams to another man, finally snaps and descends to bloody violence.
Or, this is the story of a regional curse in Suffolk, of a gnarled old tree that causes lovers to mysteriously commit suicide. Afterwards their corpses are found hanging by first light.
It is to Hollow’s ever-lasting and artistic credit that the film succeeds in telling both stories simultaneously, leaving the audience to slow boil in a frightening, and unending stew of authentic ambiguity.
Hollow remembers that human beings not only don’t always get the answers they desire.
Sometimes they get no real answers whatsoever.
“Whatever we take in there gets twisted.”
Scott (Matt Stokoe) and Emma (Emma Plumtree) are planning to get married. They decide to take a weekend trip to Suffolk, to the home of Emma’s recently-deceased grandfather, a vicar at the local church.
Along for the trip are Emma’s best friend, James (Scott Stockman), and his current girlfriend, Lynn (Jessica Ellerby).
But the truth is that James is hopelessly in love with Emma, and convinced that on this weekend he can expose Scott for the player he is, and win her love. He intends to manipulate Lynn too.
On the way to the dead vicar’s house, the young adults accidentally hit a fox in the road. It disappears after being injured, and Emma realizes they have stopped in close proximity to a haunted tree that is famous in the area.
In particular, the tree reportedly causes lovers to commit suicide.
Worse, Emma’s mother has often told her stories of a creepy experience with the tree in her childhood.
As the weekend continues, Emma finds the vicar’s files about a series of suicides nearby; of lovers found hanging from the branches of the tree...necks broken.
Meanwhile, the youngsters party, abusing alcohol and drugs. While stoned -- and after touching the tree -- Scott makes a pass at Lynn, effectively ending his engagement to Emma.
But that doesn’t mean Emma is going to be with James, either, and he simply can’t take the rejection. By night, James disappears into the woods, and the others follow him, only to encounter violence and terror.
“I feel like everything’s changed.”
When you get down to it, every aspect of the narrative in Hollow can be explained in one of two ways. Either the young adults self-destruct, after consuming copious amounts of alcohol and drugs, and ultimately kill one another, or -- in the tradition of the urban legend of region -- they are felled by the cursed tree.
At one point, Emma says of the tree that “whatever we take in there gets twisted.”
This is her way of describing the impact of the haunted tree upon her friends, and on her too.
But if you think it about, “whatever we take in there” might also refer to the drugs/alcohol that are consumed. Drugs can also twist up the emotions inside people, and reveal hidden qualities or facets of a personality.
Certainly, you can ask yourself which option is more plausible: that relentless partying releases sexual inhibitions in twenty-somethings, or that proximity to a cursed tree accomplishes the same task.
But since this is a horror film, we can suspend disbelief, and Hollow doesn’t choose a path for us. We must countenance both ideas.
Similarly, the film’s boogeyman -- either the specter from the tree, or a psychologically-disturbed James -- wears James’ slicker.
And when this “force” attacks, we never actually see the blows.
Instead, the film simply reveals people yanked out of frame. Importantly, that yanking could be done by a violent supernatural force, or just a very murderous rejected boyfriend.
Scott’s disappearance, while looking under the hood of the car, especially supports this reading. He is holding the camera when he is attacked. It just drops to the ground, so viewers have no idea what, precisely, has grabbed him and pulled him away. It could be anything. supernatural or human.
I know where I come down on the parallel paths proposed by Hollow. The last scenes of the film reveal all the youngsters hanging by their necks from branches of the old tree.
But only one of their bodies is still twitching.
That body belongs to James, not the last victim, Emma.
Therefore, my guess is that mad with jealousy and grief he killed the others, and then, in the last instance, hanged himself.
Of course, maybe the (devil) tree made him do it.
It takes a high degree of patience, discipline and precision to craft a film that walks a fine line between two equally supported possibilities, and Hollow works because that line is never violated or disrespected.
Ultimately, this is a found-footage film that can be read in the way the audience chooses to read it, but no clear or definitive answers are provided. All we can say for certain is that four young people die at that tree, and that the tree has been the site of suicides before.
Everything else is conjecture.
If Hollow boasts any drawback or deficit, artistically-speaking, it is that some of the final scenes, set inside a car parked under the tree, go on far too long. We know a negative, sinister force -- either human or not -- is nearby, and so the camera seems to endlessly pan around the gray, unattractive car interior.
A full five minutes or so could be trimmed here, and the movie would lose none of its visceral or cerebral impact.
Other than that scene, Hollow is diligent, smart, and on-target. One terrifying scene, involving a cliff, a drop-off to the beach, and a “floating apparition” (that also has another, more earthbound explanation), is genuinely pulse-quickening.
Another sequence, with Emma walking on a lonely road alone at night, and hearing noises -- her vision limited by the range of the camera light -- is also tension-provoking.
All the tropes of the found-footage horror film are here in Hollow, to be sure. There’s the driving sequence/car accident scene (Exists), the character engagement announcement (Extraterrestrial), the creepy artwork (see: The Taking of Deborah Logan), and so forth, yet Hollow innovates where it counts.
This film from director Michael Axelgaard sets out to tell two stories in one, and ramps up that all-important quality of ambiguity.
It's really amazing to consider, but in a genre format explictly about "seeing," Hollow never tips its hand, never reveals exactly what kind of force is working its dark purpose.
Thursday, July 30, 2015
Ant-Man: The Incredible Shrinking Superman
by Jonas Schwartz
Everything lacking in the second Avengers movie can be found in Marvel’s latest, Ant-Man. Sly, well-paced and well-plotted, but always a little off-kilter, Ant-Man in the Marvel universe is like the favorite prodigal nephew who’s always unemployed, smells of Jack Daniels, and treats life like one big party.
Perpetual screw-up Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) leaves San Quentin after serving time for Robin Hood-ing his past corrupt employers. His little daughter worships him but is now being raised by a new father figure (Bobby Cannavale), a self-righteous cop. After trying to walk the straight and narrow, Scott falls back into crime; breaking into the safe of a retired scientist and only finds some blueprints and an odd suit. The suit, designed by the scientist (Michael Douglas), grants Lang the power to shrink to ant-size but to have the strength of a giant, making him a perfect weapon against evil.
The film had a long gestation period and lost several original creators including its original writer/director Edgar Wright (Shawn of the Dead). Many of Wright’s elements can still be found in the shooting script, including the well-fleshed out characters and humorous pop culture banter. Eventual director Payton Reed, known mostly for TV and minor films such as Down With Love and The Break-Up, steps up, lending the film a whimsical style but still pulling off the action sequences as adroitly as Marvel’s more action-oriented directions. The climax builds, instead of feeling like one generic battle after another, and there’s a true sense of danger for our heroes throughout.
The film’s only problem involves its villain Darren Cross (Corey Stoll, The Strain) and his relationship to Dr Pym. The script, and Stoll’s performance, clearly establishes Cross’s narcissistic psychosis. This is a person who truly believes everyone is a supporting player in his central universe. A sick mind damaged by a battle between his inflated ego and his inferiority complex, he has no compunction destroying the world if it proves he’s the smartest. However, he once was Pym’s protégé. Almost as an aside, Pym admits he rejected Cross in the past because he reminded him too much of himself. However, because the movie reveals too little of Pym’s dark side (other than punching out someone who well-deserved it in the prologue), it’s vague why Pym would have ever taken on someone so clearly a sociopath. The film’s futile attempts to use dialogue to fill the holes fail where a well-constructed flashback was necessary.
Scott Lang may be the film’s superhero but Rudd is the MVP. His snarky yet earnest persona makes Scotty a lovable scoundrel that audiences beg to see redeemed. The film establishes his craftiness and his outlaw behavior but also bares his adoration for his young daughter. Both his ex-wife (the always dependable Judy Greer) and his mentor remind him that his daughter already thinks he’s a hero, now he just needs to live up to her idolization. The need to succeed for her drives his character arc.
Douglas is dependable in the mentor role. He infuses Pym with a savior mentality, and mirrors Lang’s relationship with his daughter, with the rocky but loving bond he has with his child and Girl Friday, Hope (Evangeline Lilly, Lost). Lilly is driven by her character’s anger towards her father, and her need to prove herself to him. She anchors that rage with a well-meaning sense of right. But whoever saddled her with that Louise Brooks flapper wig should be hung out to dry. Not only was the wig unbecoming, it was askew throughout the film as if she had gone to a blind barber.
Stoll makes for a tragic villain, one ruled by his insanity and desperation to be idolized. As Lang’s motley crew, Michael Cena, T.I. and David Dastmalchian lend Three Stooges goofiness to the surrounding drama of the climax.
A winner of a superhero, Ant-Man is a wacky but respectful arm of the Marvel universe. Paul Rudd’s performance stands out, along with Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner and Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark, as a three-dimensional, layered being, in a two-dimensional world.
Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonas at the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.
Wednesday, July 29, 2015
For those who don't quite remember it, The Invaders is the grandfather of paranoia and horror television series; one of the first such ventures to posit that "THEY" are among us: alien invaders (hidden in human form save for a pinky finger that juts out at an odd angle...), bent on our destruction.
These alien invaders in human bodies "have a plan" -- to coin a phrase -- to occupy and dominate the Earth. Accordingly, much of The Invaders' suffocating aura of paranoia arises from the fact that it is difficult to distinguish between human beings and extra-terrestrials. And worse, the aliens have already infiltrated every level of American (and possibly global...) infrastructure.
The Invaders commences with a brilliantly-wrought pilot. The episode is titled "Beachhead" and in this inaugural program, audiences are introduced to dashing architect David Vincent (Roy Thinnes).
Thinnes is a perfect leading man for this venture and this era -- the late 1960s -- and this alpha male shares the belligerent but virile yin/yang of that era's other leading men like Sean Connery, Patrick McGoohan, Robert Vaughn, William Shatner and Charlton Heston.
Which means, basically, that's he's attractive and arrogant at the same time; both enticing and a little entitled. It's a master-stroke to put the beautiful but bellicose Thinnes into this particular situation -- facing an alien invasion alone -- because audiences expect this American paragon of white male virility to win and, shockingly, he doesn't. Or at least not usually. .
But let's not jump the gun. In "Beachhead," David Vincent is out on a road trip alone, driving by blackest night when takes a wrong turn (literally and figuratively).
We see his car run roughshod over a sign reading "road closed" but it might as well have read "dead end."
Vincent navigates his car through a thick mist and then parks near an abandoned roadside eatery, Bud's Diner.
As a voice-over narrator asks viewers the question "how does a nightmare begin?" we see the answer for ourselves: Vincent awakens from his late-night highway-hypnosis to see an impressive alien saucer land in the field just feet beyond his car.
Vincent's face lit in pulsating hues of alien crimson, and we watch as emotions like wonder, amazement and fear cross his face in extreme close-up. This moment is a watershed: an awakening for the character in more ways than one.
After Vincent's encounter with the alien saucer, things are never the same for this man, and since Larry Cohen (of It's Alive fame) is the creator of the series, that means we're in for something clever and even a bit subversive just beneath The Fugitive-like tableau of the series.
In this case, the series depicts a WASP-y figure of the establishment (David Vincent) suddenly introduced to the new America of the mid-to-late 1960s; the sub-culture or emerging counter-culture. Through his "radical" belief in an alien invasion, Vincent finds himself shunned by figures of the American ruling class (co-workers, government officials, the wealthy, and so forth) and even hunted by them (particularly the police force). These individuals now view Vincent with disdain because he has forsaken his safe "role" in white, middle-class American society for that of a prophet...a doomsayer warning of planetary emergency.
In one episode, "Nightmare," a group of white rednecks in rural Kansas beat-up David at a diner called "The Lunch Counter" and it is impossible not to be reminded of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and how -- literally -- there was no seat at the table (or lunch counter) for those outside Nixon's "silent" and white majority.
David is pulled off a lunch stool while minding his own business, beat up, dragged away by the police and jailed...with no charges leveled. The Invaders, in depicting an outcast member of the silent majority searching desperately for legitimacy, says much about the America of the day and the fears of that time about speaking out; about dissent.
Making David Vincent's claims of alien invasion that much harder to prove, some Invaders have "evolved" and no longer bear the telltale finger anomaly, which is oddly similar to a corrupted "peace" gesture from the 1960s).
|Notice the pinky finger...|
Even more dramatically, when destroyed in battle, the Invaders disintegrate in red flame, leaving behind no evidence of their presence. The end result is that Vincent just looks like a nut-case again and again, unable to co-opt others into his :paranoid fantasy."
The Invaders begins as a superb paranoia trip, and the second episode "The Experiment" ratchets up the fear-factor to an incredible degree for the 1960s. Here, the Invaders appear as archetypal men-in-black. These menacing figures in black fedoras and trench coats systematically kill enemies who have witnessed their plots.
They do so with small black disks which - when applied to the nape of the human neck - cause cerebral hemorrhage and mimic a natural death. The Invaders also arrange for a plane crash in this episode, hoping to murder a prominent scientist who is about to reveal the alien plan to a conference in New York. The scientist is ultimately killed, betrayed by his son, (played by a young Roddy McDowall).
This war of the generations (then known as "the Generation Gap"), with young Roddy decrying his father as an "enemy," is, not coincidentally, controlled by the Invaders. They keep the son in line with brainwashing drugs; another commentary on the 1960s, only this time the drug culture of the day.
Each episode of The Invaders finds David Vincent moving from locale to locale in hopes of providing evidence of the alien menace. He finds an abandoned town whose economy has been destroyed by Big Business (again - aliens!) in "Beachhead."
In "The Mutation" (January 24, 1967) he travels to Mexico and meets a female Invader (Suzanne Pleshette), one who is indistinguishable from humans because she has developed emotions, unlike the others. This particular plot is the well-spring for many episodes and concepts on the remade Battlestar Galactica, particularly the notion of an "inhuman" being feeling, well, human.
In "Genesis," (February 7, 1967) Vincent learns that the Invaders have taken over a sea lab in hopes of resurrecting a dead leader. In "Nightmare," (February 21, 1967) the American farmland is targeted by the Invaders as the aliens deploy a weapon that causes locusts to swarm and attack. The photography in this episode alone makes it a worthwhile entry to the canon: there are an abundance of beautiful shots of in a wide open cornfield, Vincent outrunning the locusts like he's Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1960).
Each episode of The Invaders is fifty minutes long. The series aired before commercials had eaten into the broadcast hour (which today is 42 minutes). As a result, these episodes do tend to move more slowly than modern audiences might prefer.
In addition, Thinnes is asked to carry much of the series without much aid from the writers.What I mean by that is that the screenplays do not delve -- at all -- into Vincent's background or even his human psychology.
How does he keep fighting? Is he tired? Angry? Remorseful? Lonely?
In his singular focus, Thinnes is almost always: facing down the enemy and consistently winning battles but losing the war (sounds like Vietnam, no?) There are no large story-arcs; no serialized stories on The Invaders and today that feels like a serious deficit. Instead, the episodes is often left wanting to know more about Vincent.
Were the series to be remade today, I suspect we'd get much more information about this hero as a human being - as a fallible man -- and a lot less of his Invader-smashing.
As it stands, one episode after the other features Vincent stopping the alien plan of the day, only to move on and do the same thing again.That does get tiring, and truth be told, a little boring, but The Invaders is photographed so beautifully, and the social subtext of the series (going into the transitional and tumultuous year of 1968) makes the series much more than the sum of its occasionally inadequate parts.
In time, and over the course of the series, the black trench coats and fedoras give way to streamlined blue jumpsuits (blue seems to be the color of the alien technology too...), a format change that makes the aliens less scary, more like agents of SMERSH or something.
But the first several episodes of The Invaders are hardcore horror. You almost can't believe how dark and sinister they are. These segments also remind me of The Prisoner with Vincent a scorned man alone facing conspiracies, corrupt authority, and multiple brain-washing techniques (including, inevitably, alien leeches).
The best way to enjoy The Invaders, in my opinion, is to view it as a product of its time (the late 60s) -- and also, perhaps, as a product significantly ahead of its time since there have been so many imitators.
Despite the touches that date it, this cult-TV program is still a powerhouse of paranoia.
Despite the touches that date it, this cult-TV program is still a powerhouse of paranoia.
Tuesday, July 28, 2015
In the season premiere of Lost in Space (1965-1968), season two, a reckless miner from another world, Nerim (Strother Martin), searches for the valuable substance “Cosmonium” on Priplanus.
Unfortunately, Nerim’s lack of attention to safety begins a catastrophic chain reaction. All of his blasting in the planet’s interior has caused an irreversible problem. In just twelve-to-fifteen hours, the planet will explode.
The Robinsons work desperately against the clock, making final preparations to lift off and leave their home.
Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris), unfortunately, has different plans.
He wants to possess Nerim’s valuable Cosmonium, and gambles for it in a card game with the miner, using a crucial thruster unit from the Jupiter 2 as collateral.
The thruster is lost to Nerim, and he promptly flees the doomed world, leaving the Robinson family behind.
As the planet nears total destruction, the Cosmonium causes a statue of Dr. Smith to come to malevolent life, and other perils threaten the family too.
Finally, the Jupiter 2 leaves Priplanus with all hands aboard, just as the world is destroyed.
But now the ship is on a collision course with a red dwarf!
The first thing to note about Lost in Space season two, perhaps, is that the series looks fantastic in color.
More than ever, the series resembles a lushly-colored, vividly illustrated and highly-imaginative fantasy comic strip. The Chariot, the rocket pack, and the Jupiter 2 exteriors and interiors all look fantastic outside of the first year’s black-and-white photography. The Robinsons' clothing is kind of garish in color, but also visually striking.
But beyond the shock of the new -- of seeing Lost in Space in color after 29 episodes in b&w -- there’s simply not much to commend this premiere episode, “Blast Off into Space.”
Indeed, all the creative problems that came to hobble the series late in the first year (in the run between “The Challenge” and “Lost Civilization,” in particular) return in force to impact the storytelling here.
First and foremost of these problems is the pervasive earth-centric thinking.
In “Blast Off into Space,” for example, we meet Nerim the miner. But he is presented here like a late 19th century miner (of the Old West) rather than as an alien or futuristic miner.
He is accompanied by a mule, uses a pick-axe, and wears and Old West wardrobe. He is a creature of the past, not of the space age, or of an alien culture. There is no imagination, in other words, in his depiction.
Once more, the question is, simply, how did the equivalent of a 19th century Earth miner arise as a citizen of another planet?
And how come he can travel from planet to planet, but the Robinsons can’t? To our eyes, they’re all human beings. So why doesn’t Nerim help the Robinsons, or allow them to join the galactic culture?
Secondly, “Blast Off into Space” is predicated almost entirely on the idea of Dr. Smith getting into trouble, and acting badly.
He gambles away a critical thruster unit.
He creates a statue of himself that comes to life when he accidentally spills Cosmonium on it.
He tries to partner up with Nerim, leaving the Robinsons behind to their fate.
By now, we expect Smith to be greedy, cowardly and buffoonish, but it is tiresome that Smith’s behavior is always the entrance point into the narrative, the thing which creates stories. It would be much more interesting, from a dramatic stand-point, to have the Robinsons discover the planet's instability.
Thirdly, “Blast Off into Space” has little regard for series history.
The Jupiter 2 escapes from doomed Priplanus, but there is no mention of the fact that thousands of aliens in a subterranean world (including a child princess…) will die when the planet crumbles.
In “The Lost Civilization,” we met the princess and saw her soldiers frozen in suspended animation tubes. We met her major domo (Royal Dano).
No notation is given here about any of them, but if Priplanus dies…they all die, right?
It would have been great to have Will exclaim “The Princess!” at one point, just to remind us that Priplanus was populated by humanoids other than the Robinsons.
What “Blast Off into Space” adds to the Lost in Space creative equation, perhaps, is a kind of frenetic approach to action. The episode never settles down or lingers in one place, or with one plot-line for long. Between the action and special effects pyrotechnics, the episode is stunning in the visual sense.
For example, we get a weird anti-gravity chute in a mine, an attack by a creepy monster, a search (by John Robinson) of the planet in the air, and a last-minute escape by the Jupiter 2, and other set-pieces. These moments don’t all gel together, but the surfeit of action means that the episode is, at least, never dull.
The story ends with promise, with the Robinsons unshackled from planet-bound adventures, and free to roam space.
But I have an unhappy suspicion that this will turn out to be more potential unfulfilled.
Next up (in two weeks): “Wild Adventure.”
As I’ve noted before, the late 1990s gave the world a number of high-quality science fiction movies that examined and questioned the nature of reality.
This was the era of The Matrix (1999), The Thirteenth Floor (1999) and eXistenZ (1999) to name just a few.
It was also the era of Alex Proyas’ masterpiece Dark City (1998).
While Dark City does not concern a virtual recreation or game simulation of reality, it does ponder, in many significant ways, the nature of reality…at least as reality is perceived by human beings.
In broad strokes, the film concerns a mass alien abduction. Thousands -- perhaps millions -- of human beings have been taken by aliens called “Strangers” to a city complex in deep space of their unique design.
There -- every night -- these Strangers rewrite the geography of that city, and the geography of the human mind too.
One day, you might be a hotel clerk. The next day you may be imprinted with new memories and be working at a newspaper stand instead.
Reality, we can thus detect, is fluid. It changes. It re-shapes itself.
Accordingly, memory is fallible.
But do memories define us?
Are we but store mannequins made of flesh, blank slates able to be anybody -- to put on different clothes, so-to-speak -- once a new memory program downloads?
If we wear the “clothes” (memories) of a killer, do we become killers ourselves?
Or does identity, and therefore our understanding of reality, originate not in the memory, but in the human soul?
These are the questions that Dark City asks in scintillating and brooding fashion. The film is absolutely of the science fiction genre, but wrapped up in the formula of the film noir too.
The most important quality of the film noir, in my consideration is that it involves a lead figure going on an investigative journey that, finally, leads him to a new understanding of himself. His identity, his reality, is not what he expected or anticipated. The truth is life-shattering, and sometimes earth-shattering.
When you gaze at noirs such as Angel Heart (1987), or even The Thirteenth Floor (1999), this quality comes to the forefront. The best noirs are not just about solving complicated criminal cases, but about the crucial task of self-discovery.
Yet Dark City succeeds -- and indeed, is considered a classic by many critics and scholars -- not merely because it adapts the film noir to the science fiction genre.
Rather, director Proyas comprehends the importance of visual symbolism, and provides bread crumb images throughout the film to lead us down a very specific path; to enhance our understanding of the film’s central mystery without spelling it out, or spoon-feeding it to us. I mentioned the mannequin imagery above, and that’s but one crucial symbol in the film. For certain, but there are many others, and all of them illuminate the film’s themes and leitmotifs.
The journey of the film’s protagonist, John Murdoch, is, simply put, to re-discover his identity, to learn who he “really is.”
But there are visual clues about reality all around him that can aid in that task, if only he interprets them correctly; if only he recognizes them.
My central belief as a critic (or appreciator of art, as I prefer) is that for a film to be more than a mere entertainment, the form (the style; the visuals) must reflect or mirror to a high degree the content.
In other words, some aspect of the movie’s narrative must be reinforced and enhanced not just by dialogue or plot development, but by the visual compositions our eyes register and interpret.
Dark City fulfills that rubric because Proyas meticulously fashions so many trenchant visual bread-crumbs to guide us through the mystery. These visual representations help us intuit -- along the way towards the film’s surprising denouement -- the true nature of JM’s reality.
“Wherever he is, he is searching for himself.”
In a metropolis of perpetual night, a doctor named Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) toils at the behest of alien masters. The ghoulish Strangers control the city, and search -- for reasons of their own survival -- for the elusive human soul.
This on-going experiment requires Schreber to inject the city’s unsuspecting citizens with new memories, new histories. Meanwhile, the Strangers use their fierce mental powers and alien machinery to “tune,” the city to their physical, concrete specifications. By the chime of midnight, the citizens fall into slumber, see their lives erased and updated, while skyscrapers rise and fall by alien whim.
One man in the city, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), wakes up in a bath-tub, and as a complete amnesiac. He finds a dead prostitute and the murder weapon in the bed-room, but doesn’t believe he is a serial murderer…despite the evidence.
As John attempts to discover who he is, he goes on a journey to find and reconcile with his wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly), and uncover the secrets of his youth, which may be located at a place called Shell Beach.
Unfortunately, no one can reach Shell Beach, and a police investigator, Bumstead (William Hurt) is closing in on Murdoch for the murders of six hookers.
Bumstead is not alone, either. After Murdoch manages to stay awake during the nightly “tuning” period, the Strangers and Dr. Schreber come to recognize he is the one man who may hold their answers.
For the Strangers, that answer involves the nature and location of the soul. For Schreber, the answer involves an end to man’s enslavement in this dark city.
“Your entire history is an illusion, a fabrication”
A man wakes up with amnesia, and must put the pieces of his life back together before he is charged for a crime he did not commit. A dogged investigator nips at his heels, and a beautiful woman -- a possible femme fatale -- is also involved.
It’s a textbook film noir set-up, and yet Dark City adds to the familiar formula creepy aliens, telepathic powers, and a surprise revelation about reality itself.
A skilled and meticulous visual artist, Proyas provides many clues as to the nature of things -- the “truth” as it were -- throughout Dark City. These symbols and images are as important, if not more so, than many of the specific narrative details.
As John Murdoch’s journey commences, for instance, he accidentally knocks over a fish bowl.
The glass bow hits the ground and shatters, but Murdoch saves the goldfish inside, placing it inside his bath-tub.
This small incident may not seem important, but the visuals are significant, and tell the audience many things.
First, the people of Dark City have been transported from one fish-bowl to another, just like the goldfish has been.
The fish isn’t really aware, we must assume, of the switch in worlds. It only knows that it continues to live. But John here acts (absently) as the abductor -- like the Strangers -- moving life from one location to another.
This is the audience’s first clue that things are not as they should be. The incident with the fish bowl and bath tub is a visual bread crumb that leads us to an inescapable conclusion. The city where JM dwells is not what it seems on the surface, just another metropolis on Earth. Rather, the people have been transported by powerful, but undetected hands.
If we understand that the people of the city are also swimming in a fish-bowl, metaphorically-speaking, then we can comprehend two additional ideas.
First that some switch in location has occurred, unbeknownst to the inhabitants.
And secondly, that some force is observing life inside the fish bowl…from outside it.
The second important symbol in the film appears in Dr. Schreber’s office. At one point, he gazes down at a table, where rats move through a labyrinth, through a maze.
Because of the fish-bowl imagery, we understand that there are eyes upon John and the city, and that those eyes are trapping people in an unfamiliar ocean, so-to-speak.
But the maze imagery adds a piece to that puzzle.
The rats, in this case, are made to live in a maze, while Schreber observes and takes notes. He is testing them, and expects a particular outcome from the experiment, one might suggest.
This is our second clue about life in the city. The people are not just swimming about freely, while under observation. They are being experimented upon and manipulated, sent in one way or another, and made to pass tests at the hand of their unseen wardens, the Strangers.
Importantly, this sequence has a corollary late in the film. In their weird headquarters, the Strangers appear to possess a representation of the city on a table or surface. It is the equivalent of Schreber’s maze, but it reveals human progress through the maze of the metropolis.
Men of science, in both cases, observe lesser life-forms, and manipulate their progress according to some secret agenda or end.
In my introduction, I mentioned the mannequin that John stops to observe in the shop window. They are significant because they represent the Strangers’ view of human beings. You can undress, dress, and re-dress them with new clothing (memories), and they will be new individuals. John, who has awakened during imprint and tuning, is proof that this is not the case. Human beings are more than the clothes they wear, more than the memories they hold.
Another significant clue or breadcrumb in John Murdoch’s journey towards self-discovery (or self-rediscovery, as the case may be), involves a movie theater marquee.
Early in Dark City, the theater below the marquee is showing a movie called “The Evil.” After John defeats the Strangers, the marquee changes. It is now showing a film titled “Book of Dreams.”
What this change seems to tell John -- and the viewer too -- is that humanity is oppressed in the dark city under the Strangers.
The “Evil” in this case (corresponding with the title of the film at the fictional theater) might be slavery, or subjugation, or it may be the fact that the Strangers literally and figuratively keep the city’s denizens in the dark.
There can be no pursuit of happiness, no pursuit of dreams, when there is no continuity to life.
People go to sleep and wake up different, leading different lives. In such a world, there can be no linear growth, no permanent relationships, no families, even.
Instead, there is constant shifting, and transience for the city’s human inhabitants. And that nature precludes love.
As one character -- one rat in the maze -- notes: “I’ve just been dreaming this life. When I wake up, I’ll be somebody completely different.” So that control over dreams and reality may be one definition of “The Evil” in Dark City.
After John defeats the Strangers, however, the movie marquee changes. “Book of Dreams” is now showing at the theater, and this is because, for the first time, there is hope in the city.
Because of John’s tuning, Shell Beach now exists, and the city in space even possesses a sun or star to give it light. No further experiments will occur, and human beings are free to pursue love, family, careers…and dreams instead of nightmares.
An unpleasant, evil reality has been supplanted by an optimistic one. The end of Dark City -- with its cleansing water, its glowing apricot star, and its hopeful marquee --- is cathartic. It’s the sense of release after two hours of darkness. The Book of Dreams title? It suggests is potential imagined and fulfilled are the way of the future.
It is no coincidence, certainly, that Emma -- having been turned into Anna -- works at the theater showing “Book of Dreams” at film’s end.
She also represents hope because, like John, she does not let a memory implant override her soul. She is no mere mannequin accepting a new wardrobe (or memory reprogramming). Early in the film she has been cast as an unfaithful wife, and both she and John possess the memory that she cheated on him.
Yet to neither individual does this memory feel true. Instead, Emma feels only love for John: “You can’t fake something like that,” she tells him. In Dark City’s coda, she possesses new memories, but when John encounters her, her soul remains true…connected to him. It is clear the couple will be together because Emma’s soul, not the memory implants, dictate her behavior.
There is much imagery in Dark City of clocks too. Clocks of human and alien design tick and tick, and yet time doesn’t really pass. Night never ends, it just repeats endlessly, as the city’s inhabitants are given new lives, new memories.
When Murdoch defeats the Strangers, he restores time’s passage, bringing back the cycle of day and night, the light to complement the dark. The Strangers’ control, represented by their fearsome clock (hidden inside a representation of their ghoulish visage) is shattered, and so is “The Evil” they bring.
As Dark City opens, the movie literalizes one line of dialogue -- “He’s not himself” -- and that’s because human destinies are abrogated, futures are stalled, and even identity seems fluid. The path that John Murdoch follows (from the fish bowl, to the mannequins in the window, to the marquee) convey the nature of his hero’s journey.
These bread crumbs tell us what is wrong with the world (“The Evil”), promise hope (“The Book of Dreams”) and subtly reveal the truth of the city (that it is a fishbowl or maze, where humans are subjects in an experiment).
John absorbs all these images, much as he absorbs the information from Dr. Schreber about how to defeat the Strangers and takes back reality for the city. John learns that he has the power “to make anything happen,” and that it is “the human capacity for individuality” which is the key to defeating the Strangers.
But as viewers, we would not understand any of this information so clearly without the symbolic architecture Proyas constructs in his Dark City. The symbols explain, in perfect detail, John Murdoch's long night's journey into day.
A reader, Chuck, writes: "I know you have been busy and, frankly, I was not sure if you still have time for “Ask JKM a Quest...