Alex Proyas’ 1998 masterwork Dark City reaches into a lot of different bags for ideas. Unique and visually inspired, it borrows freely from such diverse sources as Fritz Lang, Edward Hopper, George Romero, early Bob Kane-era Batman, Blade Runner, and Marvel Comics’ Dr. Strange. This odd gumbo of looks and styles culminate in a film that is a marvel of originality and one of the best sci-fi/fantasy films of its generation.
The world of Dark City is one whose human denizens are unwitting puppets, being used nightly in an ongoing experiment by unseen alien overlords. The puppet masters here are The Strangers; a dying race of aliens who have taken mankind hostage and are observing us, the better to understand what makes us tick. Their method consists of shutting down the city every night at the stroke of midnight, and switching the citizens around. The shuffling includes having a whole new set of memories injected directly into the brain.
When we first meet John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), he’s unconscious in a bathtub, and sharing an apartment with a dead hooker. How did he get there, and what happened to the girl? We don’t know, and neither does Murdoch. A sudden phone call advising him to get out of there doesn’t shed any light on things. Dark City is bewildering to the first-time viewer, and draws you in in a perverse way. Like Murdoch, the viewer wants to know what the hell is going on.
The film gradually brings some of the other players into view; Dr. Schreber (Keifer Sutherland), a psychiatrist whom the Strangers have forced to help them. Bumstead (William Hurt), a cold fish detective who is assigned the case of the murdered prostitute, and Emma (Jennifer Connelly), a nightclub singer who may or may not be Murdoch’s wife. There is also a character who we meet briefly in the early section of the film, who initially seems like a madman, but who takes on a greater significance later on – Walenski (Colin Friels), who was the detective who worked on the case prior to Bumstead.
The world that Proyas, production designers George Liddle and Patrick Tatopoulos, and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski create to contain this fantastic tale is a mesmerizing admixture. Virtually the whole film takes place at night, and the look crosses over many styles. I mentioned Fritz Lang earlier – the Dark City has soaring art deco skyscrapers and elevated trains that look like they could have come directly from Lang`s Metropolis. The Strangers, with their long coats and Homberg hats, also look like refuges from the German expressionist cinema of Lang or Robert Weine. Practically every frame of the film is stuffed with detail, and it makes DC a joy to look at. Take the syringe that Schreber uses to inject his subjects: it is an ornate art-deco contraption with wings. Could he have just used a normal syringe? Sure, but who would remember that? That is the level of attention that went into the creation of this world.
Early and often in the film, Shell Beach comes up. An old postcard triggers memories in Murdoch of a bright beach community, and he is able to ascertain that it is where he grew up. Trying to get there is another matter. Everyone he asks has heard of Shell Beach, but when he asks how to get there, people suddenly realize that they don’t know. The experiments of the Strangers provide people with what seem to be memories, but they are not connected to any sort of physical experience. They think they know, but they don’t – And that applies to everything.
Bumstead knows early on that Murdoch was with the most recent murdered girl, and is looking for him as the prime suspect, but there is something that doesn’t add up. Murdoch doesn’t seem like a serial killer, and as they talk, the detective gets questions thrown back at him that he can’t answer. When Murdoch asks Bumstead “When was the last time you did something in the day-time?”,Bumstead looks like he has been slapped in the face. He never thought of it. His memories are what the Strangers tell him that they are, and he has no reason to question what he remembers.
The only character that seems to connect Murdoch to any kind of reality is Emma, who is supposed to be his wife. Schreber contacts her early on when he is looking for Murdoch, and she claims to have not seen him either. She tells a story of him discovering an affair she was having, and leaving her. If Dark City has taught us anything to this point, it is that things aren’t what they appear. It seems possible, probable even, that this story is a fabricated memory. When Murdoch and Emma meet, that’s the big question that is hanging in the background; yes, you have memories of our life together, but are they real, or did we just meet for the first time right now?
Murdoch isn’t like the others in this world. He shares the Strangers ability to “tune”; a telekinetic ability to move stuff and bend shapes with his mind. He is just beginning to understand this as the film progresses, and discovers it almost by accident in a couple of anxious situations. The tuning power is also the reason that he doesn’t fall asleep with everyone else, thus enabling him to see how the Strangers’ experiments unfold.
And what a visual wonder those experiments are! The Strangers use a massive machine buried under the city to switch stuff up every night, and the scenes where it is engaged are a comic-book nerds dream. While the city skyline is morphing into something new, the Strangers and Schreber are moving selected people into new identities. The idea of identity changing is not new to Science Fiction; you can go right back to Metropolis, and up to stuff like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Total Recall, but Dark City’s take on it is unique and thought provoking. At its core, the film is asking the big question of what makes us what we are.
The former detective Walenski is eventually sought out by Bumstead, who is finding out for himself about the bizarre aspects of his case. Walenski was once a top cop, but has suffered a breakdown, and when Bumstead visits him, he sees a man long gone over the edge into madness. Walenski is holed up in him room, still feverishly working on his case, and when we see him, we also see some familiar signs, like drawings of the spiral pattern that was found carved into the flesh of the murdered women. Despite his delusions, Walenski was on the right track. He is the only one who really realizes that the world as everyone understands it doesn’t exist anymore, and that knowledge eventually leads to his destruction.
The most interesting and complex character in the film, however is probably Dr. Scherber. As played by Sutherland, Scherber seems constantly out of breath, like every sentence threatens to kill him. Scherber has been forced by the Strangers to betray the whole human race, and when he realizes Murdoch`s true nature, he begins a delicate tightrope walk. On the surface he needs to help the Strangers find this man who is a danger to them. At the same time, he needs to protect Murdoch, who he knows may ultimately be mankind’s salvation. It`s a strange, brilliant performance by Sutherland.
The apocalyptic final showdown of DC is shot through with explosions and fire, and is about the only place where the film denigrates itself to the style of a typical Hollywood comic actioner. That is not to disparage this sequence – it`s very well done. The highlight for me is Dr. Schrebers double cross of the Strangers, as he trains Murdoch in a dream on how to fight them, and when he intones ``You can defeat them, but you must…act…now``, it`s a brilliant kick-starter into the final battle.
In listing all the influences for this movie, I forgot one: The Bible. The films final passages borrow heavily from the book of Genesis, and I give the makers full credit for such an audacious idea. As he decides to ``fix things up`` with his new-found tuning ability, Murdoch is evocative of nothing less than a God surrogate. That`s what makes Dark City a special movie; it has big, big ideas, and the courage to follow them as far as they will go. And what a fun ride it is.