Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Dark City (1998)

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.


  1. woodchuckgod9:48 AM

    "What kind of killer do you think stops to save a dying fish?"

    This just made me smile, I have to say.

    This is probably one of my favorite films of that time period. I saw it in the theatre on multiple occasions, which is a rare thing for me to do.

    I'll confess that my original draw was the director. I was quite fond of Proyas' "The Crow", and while I knew next to nothing about the film itself when I first bought my ticket, I trusted that I'd enjoy the ride, and I did. Repeatedly. It really is one of those films that rewards repeat viewings, and it was fun peeling back the onion, so to speak.

    I recall the first moment where the nature of the city is revealed, as completely blowing my head off my shoulders. I'm pretty sure I could gush for hours on the details of this film that I just love, be it the noir stylings, the archetypal names of the Strangers, Jennifer Conneley's captivating torch-singer, Ian Richardson commanding "Shut It Down!".. and so on. I'll refrain from the full list, because I'd keep remembering things I'd forgotten and tack them on for days.

    Thanks for the awesome analysis of one of my favorite films.

  2. I preferred the film when it hit in 87 and was called Hellraiser.

  3. I didn't care for it at all on 1st viewing.
    Dig it now

  4. When i begin watching i am captivated and can not stop. I suffer from hippocampus damage due to mold and ME/CFS. I feel hopeful in the end that my life could get better.