Dark City (1998): Exploring the soul through neo-noir sci-fi
It’s odd to get the opportunity to revisit a sci-fi noir classic like Dark City after all these years, because it seems like I’m one of the few people who actually paid attention back in 1998 when it was first released. I share this not as some horrendous stab at hipster credibility (“I only like their early stuff, bro…”), but simply to add the context that it’s rare for me to be ahead of the cult movie curve.
Coming off the success of The Crow, director Alex Proyas’s star was certainly on the rise (though it eventually came crashing back down to earth), and Dark City represents his “difficult second album” in many ways, with a detailed, introspective plot seemingly designed to ensure the masses would shrug. Made on a budget of just $27 million, even its stalled box office performance attracted no headlines, as it more or less broke even. But the film has picked up plenty of hardcore fans over its years of being lost in obscurity, in particular Roger Ebert, who boldly named Dark City the best film of 1998, and even recorded a commentary track for the DVD.
The film focuses on John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), who wakes up disoriented in a strange hotel. That he’s in a bathtub and is awakened by a phone call from a stranger only adds to his discombobulation. On the line is one Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), who urges him to quickly exit the hotel before the arrival of some particularly nasty Nosferatu-like characters called “the Strangers”.
Stirred into action by this ominous warning, a closer inspection of Murdoch’s hotel room reveals the nightmare situation of every blackout drunk on the planet: a naked female corpse and a bloody knife that screams “I did this!” Murdoch heeds the good doctor’s advice and flees the scene shortly before the arrival of a set of deeply menacing (and desperately balding) chaps.
As the amnesia-addled Murdoch explores this appropriately dark metropolis in the hunt for clues to his own identity, police detective Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) is trying to solve a mess of murders to which John is eventually linked. He soon gets some assistance from John’s estranged wife, a lounge singer named Emma (Jennifer Connelly), who reveals that Schreber is her husband’s doctor, and was treating him for a psychotic break when he abruptly went missing. The two work together and finally track down Murdoch.
They find him increasingly troubled by the lack of daylight in the city, and the shallow memories of its inhabitants. He learns, for example, that he hails from an idyllic-sounding seaside town known as Shell Beach. A conversation with Bumstead reveals that this is about as much as anyone knows about the place, as no one can remember quite where it’s located, or describe how to get there. Furthermore, no one seems to be able to leave the city. Every subway train out of town speeds past the platform, much to the dismay of its intended passengers, although anyone who’s tried to negotiate the New York City subway system after 11pm could tell much the same story.
Still more troubling than the city’s mass transit issues is the fact that come midnight, time seems to stop, and everyone falls asleep except Murdoch, Dr. Schreber, and the baldy brigade, sorry, the Strangers. During this time, they use their telepathic abilities to alter the shape and structures of the city through a process they call “tuning”.
Upon further exposition from Dr. Schreber, Murdoch learns that he too has these abilities. This is what allowed him to wake up just as Schreber himself was about to alter his memories and inject him with the personality of a serial murderer. You see, the bad doctor works for the Strangers, who he explains are alien parasites with a shared consciousness, inhabiting human corpses and altering the environment in an attempt to understand our individuality. Their race is dying, and they believe humanity holds the key to their continued survival.
Clearly rattled by the anomaly of Murdoch interfering with their reality experiments, the Strangers assign Mr. Hand (Richard O’Brien) to find and eliminate him. Along the way, Hand kidnaps Emma to better ensure John’s full cooperation, and the pursuit comes to an end as Murdoch and Bumstead try to reach Shell Beach, only to be met with nothing more than a poster covering a brick wall.
Frustrated that he can’t find the town of his daydreams, Murdoch uses his mental abilities to smash through the wall, opening up a hole to nowhere. An ensuing fight sees the detective and one of the slapheads scuffle through the wall and end up in deep space, revealing the city as a giant floating metropolis surrounded by a force field. Alas, this awe-inspiring sight becomes the last thing Bumstead sees before his lifeless body floats off into the void.
John surrenders when the Strangers threaten to kill Emma, whereupon they make plans to overwrite his memories and start all over. But Shreber has cleverly inserted himself into the memories he injects into Murdoch, wherein he teaches John’s younger self all about how to use his powers. When he wakes up, Murdoch easily escapes his restraints and destroys the lair of the Strangers. A climactic battle with their leader Mr. Book (Ian Richardson) provides a fittingly explosive end to their reign of terror, leaving Murdoch free to explain that their wayward search for human individuality should have started with the heart, not the brain.
Finding that Emma’s memories are gone and she now believes herself to be a ticket booth girl named “Anna”, John uses his powers to recreate his long-sought paradise of Shell Beach just outside of the city walls, and he even tilts the whole city so that it finally sees daylight. We get the jarring effect of bright sunlight in this movie for the first time as John meets the newest incarnation of his former wife, and walks off with her into the sunset. (Though, exactly which sun is setting is left as an open question.)
Dark City is a beautiful, thought-provoking work that perhaps suffered most at the box office because Proyas decided to inject an element of horror into the movie. The studio marketing mob clearly picked up on this and ran with it, figuring it was their best chance to communicate a complicated storyline that asks fundamental existential questions about identity and the soul. Had they waited just a year or two, these marketers would have seen The Matrix successfully bridge the gap between a high concept and blockbuster status. In fact, Dark City and The Matrix were both being filmed around the same time at Fox Studios in Australia, but despite having similar themes (and reusing some sets), there’s never been any official word that either film influenced the other.
Visually, Dark City still looks great, as the sequences of morphing and twisting buildings still hold their own even 15 years on, which is especially impressive given the movie’s budget. The limited color palette lends a necessary atmosphere to the environment, adding to the movie’s claustrophobic feel.
The film does have a few flaws, however, particularly in the quick-cut editing; according to IMDb, Dark City has one of the shortest average shot lengths of any modern film. This is a bit hard to believe after experiencing most of Michael Bay’s body of work, but there were many moments where I wished the camera would have lingered on its subject a second or two longer. Also, the acting is a bit sketchy in spots, and there are some rather obvious post-production overdubs, though in a strange way, these help the film by adding a slight air of unreality.
And sure, the final explanation of “heart over head” runs the risk of cliché (it was most likely inspired by the last line of Metropolis, which seems to have been a major influence here), but the rest of the film is so smartly executed that all of the above is easy to forgive.
The 2008 director’s cut improves upon the original by extending some scenes and removing elements that the studio forced upon it back in 1998, such as an introductory voiceover from Sutherland that unnecessarily explains the whole movie far too early. The new version isn’t a massive upgrade, but it’s definitely worth checking out, particular if you were one of the many people who missed out on Dark City back when it was theaters.
(I did mention that I was down with this movie the first time around, right? Yeah, no biggie…)