In the late 1990s, two thematically similar films were released about a year apart from each other. The second film, The Matrix, was largely filmed on the same sets and reused many of the props of its predecessor, Dark City. Both films featured protagonists who struggled to free humanity from a technological prison that offered up false consciousness as reality. Many more undeniable similarities exist between these two films, but the superior Dark City has been all but forgotten as the protoMatrix. Yeah, so maybe Dark City lacked the “whoa” punch line of its lead actor as well as an androgynous heroine in a skintight catsuit, the entire kung fu schbang, and perhaps most damning, the marketing blitz of The Matrix. However, the absence of Dark City references within the easily digestible realm of pop culture doesn’t lessen the film’s impact as a cyberpunk, sci-fi noir masterpiece. Indeed, Dark Cityis a non-preachy parable that dares to provide substance along with its style.
In the opening monologue of Dark City, Dr. Daniel Shreber (Kiefer Sutherland) confesses that he has betrayed the human race. Shreber is the unwitting puppeteer for a species of pale-faced, fedora-wearing aliens, the Strangers, who have transplanted a shitload of humans from Earth onto a massive island that appears to be a classic noir metropolis. The Strangers have designed this city as a laboratory to experiment upon the inhabitants. The city is entirely shrouded in darkness, and its inhabitants remain rather subdued even in their waking hours. Although they don’t realize it, the humans are actors playing roles that are based on injected memories. Every midnight, a mandatory sleep falls over the humans, and the Strangers conduct their “tuning” experiments with the help of Dr. Shreber. During the sleep, the Strangers alter the physical landscape of the city as well as the memories and self-identities of the human inhabitants. The Strangers do so under the belief that, eventually, all of these adjustments will uncover the essence of the human soul, which these aliens are obviously lacking and require to perpetuate their own dying species.
An obvious question might be why a film would give away its premise in the opening monologue. To the contrary, the audience quite appreciates this knowledge, and in fact, the film’s pitch-perfect editing leaves no time for the audience to stop and ponder. The story quickly takes flight after the Strangers’ tuning experiments have advanced through hundreds of cycles to great success — that is, until the occasional human wakes up during an injection procedure.
Those who do wake up may damn well wish they hadn’t.
Dark CIty’s protagonist, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), awakens to the glare of a bare lightbulb above his ice-cold bathtub within a seedy motel. Murdoch, who has blood on his forehead and one hell of a case of amnesia, stumbles towards a mirror as he discovers a brutally murdered prostitute. He doesn’t know whether he committed this murder or not because, hell, he has to peek into his wallet to learn his own name. Murdoch then receives a frantic phone call from Dr. Schreber, whose breathless duplicity only heightens Murdoch’s alarm. He sets out to resolve the mystery of his identity and finds that he has acquired the ability to resist the mandatory sleep imposed by the Strangers. Murdoch not only witnesses the transformations that occur at midnight but finds that he has acquired some of the Strangers’ powers. Our protagonist is also troubled by his apparent memories of Shell Beach, which is a paradise that everybody claims to remember but that no one is able to locate. Indeed, throughout the city, 1940s-styled billboards advertise Shell Beach, and even the pocket of Murdoch’s trench coat contains a Shell Beach postcard along with newspaper clippings detailing the murders of several other prostitutes. Unsettled, Murdoch soon finds himself under pursuit by various parties with apparently sinister motives, and although Dr. Shreber offers his assistance, Murdoch can’t even trust his own recollections, let alone any other persons.
In an era where Hollywood can’t seem to create its own original story, we can appreciate creative pioneering when it actually succeeds. Dark City might feel like a graphic novel that you’ve watched or seen before in fragmented pieces, but its story is completely original — conceived and co-written by the film’s director Alex Proyas (The Crow). Of course, since everything is derivative, Proyas undoubtedly weaves a Kafkaesque tale of Dickensian urban-industrial hell. This is existential dread as inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Tim Burton’s Batman, Scott’s Blade Runner, the German Expressionism of Nosferatu, as well Edward Hopper’s paintings of the urban landscape. However, Proyas has not created a work of fanboy imitation that results in a bootlicking pastiche of wink-wink allusions. Instead, one gets the feeling this director possess a deep passion for both sci-fi and noir films, so he has done his bloody homework. As a result, Dark City has its own gorgeous cinematography and a story that takes familiar elements — urban dystopia, uncertainty of love, mystery, fatalism — and makes them new once again. Although it seems as if drifting Americans are struggling against internal decay in what could be a version of a 40s’ or 50s’ New York City, this is an entirely alien breed of noir. So, while the film occurs in the typically noirish settings of darkened city streets, bars, and motels, something otherworldly persists throughout every frame. In particular, the tuning sequences impress as buildings twist and groan into new incarnations right along with the city’s inhabitants.
The casting of Dark City comes pretty close to perfect as well. Rufus Sewell’s Murdoch strikes the correct blend of urgency and, for lack of a better term, freaked-outedness. Jennifer Connelly is appropriately understated as Emma Murdoch, an enigmatic lounge singer who appears, as a femme fatale, to be the source of her husband’s downfall. As Mr. Hand, Richard O’Brien takes a nice turn and lends a bit of needed personality to the Strangers. William Hurt, as Inspector Frank Bumstead, evokes such hard-boiled detectives as Humphrey Bogart. Finally, Kiefer Sutherland gives good duplicity as Dr. Schreber, who fights for breath as he struggles to maintain his own humanity in the face of such dastardly deeds.
When Shreber insists to Murdoch that together, “We can take the city back,” we are left to wonder … to where, exactly? Most of the city’s inhabitants don’t even realize that their city has been misplaced, and even those with this bit of knowledge possess no memory of where the past was actually located. This crisis of identity befalls Murdoch, who knows he must work towards a future without knowing whether any of his previously life-defining memories are actually worth anything. Murdoch is faced with the bleak possibility that no solution exists to this dilemma. In the end, Dark City is an unforgettable exploration of the connection between memories and emotions to identity and the nature of the human soul. It’s also a film definitely worthy of its cult status.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma and can be found at agentbedhead.com.
Dark City / Agent Bedhead
Underappreciated Gems | February 19, 2008 | Comments ()