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.

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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”.

Dark City (1998): Exploring the soul through neo-noir sci-fi

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.

Dark City (1998): Exploring the soul through neo-noir sci-fi

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.

Dark City (1998): Exploring the soul through neo-noir sci-fi

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.

Dark City (1998): Exploring the soul through neo-noir sci-fi

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”.

Dark City (1998): Exploring the soul through neo-noir sci-fi

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.

Dark City (1998): Exploring the soul through neo-noir sci-fi

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.

Dark City (1998): Exploring the soul through neo-noir sci-fi

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.

Dark City (1998): Exploring the soul through neo-noir sci-fi

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 (1998): Exploring the soul through neo-noir sci-fi

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.

Dark City (1998): Exploring the soul through neo-noir sci-fi

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.

Dark City (1998): Exploring the soul through neo-noir sci-fi

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…)

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  • david f white

    Dark City is One of my favorite Movies!!

  • Ken Zevo

    Dark City was like a perfectly cut 40 caret diamond with a large visible crack in it from top to bottom – flawed to the point of making you want to cry, and yet hauntingly beautiful and rare, both at the same time. I remember the 1st half pissed me off, for being so obscure and detail-less (both of which became completely forgivable, as the movie progressed & the reasons for all the cloak-and-dagger mystery became logical, and integral, plot points); and the 2nd half pissed me off for the exact opposite reason – too much exposition – by then, I liked the alien villains more, the less I knew about them and their abilities – the details just seemed like forced patches of cheap plaster, used to fill in the various cracks and gaps in the plot, so the movie could plod on a little further towards the grave yard.
    What I remember most was the mournful greyness of nearly every scene – and I mean that in a completely 10/10 way, not as criticism of any kind. The dull and drab lighting, the washed out colors, the whole doom & gloom visual effect was like a life that had had it’s soul sucked out and then washed with too much bleach. The constant feeling of depression, longing, and the nagging paper-cut feeling that something crucial was missing that, when discovered, would draw all the dismal puzzle pieces together into a coherent whole, was just palpable throughout the movie. It was a feeling of “I’m SO close to the answer … if I just had a FEW more details, then I know I could make sense of it all” that was both maddening and maddeningly engaging – almost obsessively so, IMAO. I just wish the answers that finally come out towards the end had been more “The Village” than “The English Patient”. (Not that I am necessarily chucking asparagus at either movie, just using them as representative examples of a relatively satisfying pay-off for the amount of time invested, vs. a relatively unsatisfying one. Feel free to flame me anyway, if that is your ADHD OCD thing, though, since those childish temper tantrums are always fun to read, in a “well thank god I’m not THAT lunatic!” sort of way)
    It was a good, bad movie; and, years later, is still a guilty pleasure; but I think it is one of those movies that really deserves to be made over, and made better. It had a lot of untapped potential remaining, that could have (and should have) benefitted from a better plot twist in the final acts, if not a better premise for why things were so fracked up in the first place. Honestly, I spent most of the movie expecting the twist to be that it was all some kind of coma hallucination … that we were in the protagonist’s fevered and unconscious imagination. I found the “alien abduction” explanation too forced and poorly executed, and felt the movie deserved a better premise for resolving all the various mysteries.
    Hopefully, the flaws and failures of this largely well-crafted gem will inspire some future film maker to re-investigate/re-work the whole plot and premise, and carry them both thru to a more dignified, unified, and satisfying ending, in some future movie, whether that is a remake or just a re-visiting of the “surreal and confused amnesia murder mystery” genre.

  • Murry Chang

    I saw this first run in the theater and loved it from the beginning.

    And that was before I wrote a whole bunch of papers for my film student friends in college and could appreciate how technically awesome it was!

  • Cristiona

    I disagree that the director’s cut “isn’t a massive upgrade”.

    By taking the opening voice-over and moving it to the row boat scene (where it belongs) massively improves the film. If for no other reason than gigantic plot spoilers are no longer the first thing you hear in the movie. That opening voice-over was a titanic blunder on the part of the studio. It largely ruined much of the suspense and mystery while simultaneously giving a eye-glazing amount of exposition before the viewer even has a chance to find their bearings.

    I saw Dark City in the theater after psyching myself up for months leading up to it (mainly because it made me think of a somewhat obscure RPG called Bloodshadows). I absolutely loved it in the theater. Later on, it was one of the first DVDs I ever bought, and I watched it dozens of times; it is one of my favorite movies. And when I saw the director’s cut, it was like a whole new experience. It turned a great movie into a masterpiece.

  • Nasty In The Pasty

    The last time Jennifer Connelly looked hot in a movie. :(

  • Muthsarah

    “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.”


    This is, probably, the most annoying thing about big-budget films these days. They RUIN movies for me. Sometimes. More often, they just make me downgrade them from “FUN! AWESOME! REALLY IMPRESSIVE!” to “better than I thought, but…..what? Are my eyes bleeding AGAIN?!”

    Don’t recall this happening at all when I saw this. ‘Course, that was on the small screen. Whatever. Gorgeous film. Don’t buy the deep metaphysical stuff. Though I never try. Don’t like that stuff. Just a damn good lookin’ movie with intrigue. That’s all I ask in my arthouse noir.