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Film Review: Dark City

Dark City (1998; Directed by Alex Proyas)

A man checks his watch; it has stopped at midnight. Another man wakes up naked in a bath in an unfamiliar green-tiled bathroom, a trickle of blood on his forehead, a broken stylized syringe on the tile floor, his(?) clothes piled on a chair in the corner. He looks at himself in a mirror, seeming to only barely recognize the stranger in the glass. He dresses, finds a jacket, keys, and a postcard from a place called Shell Beach that sparks a sunsoaked memory of a terrace by the sea. Then he sees a dead woman with spirals carved into her skin, and the phone rings.

This is the disorienting, wordless opening of Alex Proyas’ Dark City, and it never really improves on the enigmatic film noir resonance of this first sequence. What precisely has happened to this man, named John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), and what it means for the larger reality of the titular nocturnal metropolis does get revealed gradually and often deliciously and compellingly, yes. But the answers are both richer and very much poorer than the establishing questions of Dark City.

Murdoch does not know he is Murdoch until he retrieves his wallet from a Gilliamesque “automat”, a sort of vending machine sized up to a full diner. He doesn’t remember anything beyond a few flashes of a happy childhood associated with Shell Beach. He’s soon bothered by a nervous doctor named Schreber (an oddly cast Kiefer Sutherland) who promises him answers but never quite provides them willingly, pursued by a hardboiled police detective (William Hurt) suspecting him of a string of murders, and meets a wife named Emma (Jennifer Connelly) that he didn’t know he had and doesn’t know quite how to relate to. He’s also pursued by pale, bald, creepily, thinly elongated figures in black fedoras and long coats who try to kill him and/or control his mind.

Ideally, this is all a viewer would know about this movie going in. If you want to be such a viewer, stop reading now and spare yourself an attempt to consider what’s going on in Dark City. But what is going on? That is eventually revealed, mostly by Schreber in a monologue as he, Murdoch and the detective Bumstead direct a rowboat along a dark urban canal. The city, you see, is an enormous running experiment, a lab rat maze for human subjects (Schreber is seen with such a maze when Emma first meets him, foreshadowing these later revelations). The pale gents, known only as the Strangers, run the show from a kooky gothic subterranean lair, utilizing a collective mind and psychokinetic powers called “tuning” to pause and remake the cityscape each night, sprouting new buildings like accelerated-growth flowers, shifting their human subjects’ socioeconomic situations, memories, indeed their entire lives, just to register and try to understand the effect when they restart the clock and “life” resumes. The sun never rises in this constructed city, a symbolic marker of the ignorant, helpless existence of the repeatedly manipulated people who dwell in it.

John Murdoch, for whatever reason, cannot be so easily manipulated by the tuning Strangers, and as he comes to realize the situation in the city he also realizes that perhaps he has the power to change it. He sets off on a single-minded quest to find Shell Beach, to pinpoint a properly non-existent locus of purity, innocence and happiness where all uncertainties, above all the uncertainty of his identity, will be resolved. Shell Beach is a fantasy creation, invented by the Strangers’ human-memory chemist Schreber (who is named after a schizophrenic German judge who was an important case analysed by Sigmund Freud and whose memoirs are frequently referenced in the film) to provide a reasonable backstory to Murdoch’s life. It does not exist, but Murdoch’s ultimate act of resistance to the Strangers’ unseen authority is to find it, and when it cannot be found, to create it himself.

Theologian Gerald Loughlin reads Dark City as a recasted take on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: Murdoch, like Plato’s ideal philosopher, discovers from whence the shadows on the cave wall originate, but instead of freeing the imprisoned human subjects with this knowledge and power, he uses it to craft his own shadows, his own illusions. Dark City has been closely associated in late ’90s cult film with The Matrix: not only are their plots, philosophical themes and emerald-tinged, leather-bound neo-noir look quite similar, they were released a year apart and were shot in the same studios in Sydney, Australia using many of the same sets. Murdoch’s role as a specially-powered liberator of the controlled masses, but only on the preconceived terms of the forces of hidden hegemony, closely mirrors Neo’s niche as The One, delineated at the end of The Matrix Reloaded by the Architect as an established if accidental algorithm in the system that grants the disaffected with the illusion of freedom of choice while securing their unconscious obedience to the imperatives of the hegemons, be they insect-like robots as in The Matrix or teeth-chattering albino psychic creeps as in Dark City.

But The Matrix was a massive popular success while Dark City was a commercial flop that, despite the dogged persistence of the praise of America’s top film critic, has managed only mid-level cult success and appreciation since its release. Alex Proyas is not a lesser visual stylist than the Wachowskis by any measurable means; if anything, his visionary mash-up of film noir, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and nutball B-movie goth sci-fi is much more atmospheric and resonant than the concurrent settings of The Matrix. It’s depressingly materialist-essentialist to say it, but Dark City‘s Achilles heel might be its limited budget. In some features, the limitations have an clever, almost serendipitous resonance. Every scene, interior and exterior, feels inexorably like it’s being shot on a soundstage, but then, in the Strangers’ artificially-crafted city, it should feel that way. It detaches and disorients the viewer but the effect has a weird congruence. Indeed, considering Proyas’ production funding caps, Dark City has an unusually fully-realized vision and rarely feels visually compromised in any real way.

But there are other compromises. There are not any good performances to speak of. Sewell is convincing, if far from leading man material, and genre legend Richard O’Brien slithers through the movie as lead Stranger Mr. Hand, a character conceived of for the veteran of such roles. Hurt is barely trying, Sutherland is overly mannered and lost in a speech impediment, and the young Connelly is blank and bored (she was always beautiful, but only really became an interesting actress in later years). Furthermore, as seductive as the film noir set-up is, the jarring instrusion of the cornball science fiction solution is a worse turn-off than a bad pick-up line. By the time Murdoch and Stranger elder Mr. Book (Ian Richardson) are floating above a crumbling city mindwave-fighting, an intriguing premise has long since dissolve into ridiculous genre nonsense. The visions of Dark City are bold and often memorable, but their eventual implications and resolutions are not nearly as potent. One more way the film resembles The Matrix, after all.

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