Dark City

Some spoilers follow. Dark City is one of those movies I have to come back to now and again, this time after I accidentally broke my DVD copy and had to go on a quest for a Blue Ray version to replace it. Seemingly the best we will ever see from Director and Co-Writer Alex Proyas, Dark City didnít make any money in its original release in 1998, but it subsequently became a cult film, with me as one the cult members. When I mention the film to someone, they usually draw a blank and ask what sort of movie it is. I made up a genre, which is noir/sci-fi/fantasy/German Expressionist. The look of the movie and some of its sets were borrowed for use in the later Matrix series, which was filmed at the same studio in Australia.

Dark City takes place on an extraterrestrial planet, engineered by The Strangers, spider-like energy beings who occupy pale human male corpses, dressed in black long coats and hats. Strangers are averse to sunlight, chlorine and salt and hence have engineered the city so it is always dark. The Strangers are a perishing race, condemned by their hive mind. They are fascinated by human adaptability and want to understand how humans think. To that end, they have abducted numerous humans. Each day the humans are put to sleep at midnight, have memories removed and inserted and begin each day not realizing what came before, all to help the Strangers in their attempt to understand us. The Strangers have psychokinetic ability, and use it to rearrange the city each night, so they can study how humans react.

The story begins when John Murdock (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a grimy bathtub, bloodstained and disoriented, seemingly having murdered a woman. He is alerted by phone by the strange Doctor Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), that he is in danger from the Strangers, and goes on the run. Eventually he remembers his name and that heís married to a nightclub singer Emma (Jennifer Connelly, prior to plastic surgery). The city he lives in is a nightmare, a mashup of a lot of cities, always dark and wet, populated by people who fall asleep at midnight when the Strangers change their memories. John, however, is resistant, can ďtuneĒ as the Strangers call it, and is gradually discovering what is going on. The Strangers have enlisted a human detective, Frank Bumstead (William Hurt), who is seeking John, presumably for the murder of the dead woman. Meantime, John and Emma have images in their minds of a place called Shell Beach, a sunny place full of salt water, someplace the Strangers canít go. Everybody in Dark City has heard of Shell Beach, but nobody knows where it is. When Dr. Schreber restores Johnís memory, he realizes that he has the same psychokinetic abilities as the Strangers. He also realizes that he has to overcome the hold the Strangers have on the humans.

The first thing I have to acknowledge about Dark City is that itís not an easy movie. It really benefits from several watchings. The entire movie has the sort of non-logic that comes with dreams, as though you think you should understand something but itís always just out of reach. The look of the film is truly amazing and very dark. The plot is sci-fi and noir detective, but the look is like some sort of off-center voyage into films like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Nosferatu and Metropolis. The German Expressionist silent film influence is all over this movie. It also channels the look of some noir films, plots of Twilight Zone episodes and strong hints of Franz Kafka. Apparently Proyas wrote the story and was assisted by Lem Dobbs and Dave Goyer with the screenplay. I donít think it has an antecedent in a book, but is an original story. From what I have read, it was a troubled production and the final product is somewhat cobbled together, but as it is, Dark City is really worth watching. It challenges your picture of what a sci-fi story can be and puts you into this dark dream world where little makes sense or has continuity. Once you do get a grip on whatís going on, itís full of fascinating, multi-layered plot twists. The film is somewhat slow to develop, giving you a chance to immerse yourself in the surrealistic environment. You should watch it at night when your brainís right hemisphere (the part of your brain thatís intuitive and visual rather than logical or verbal) can take over and you wonít expect a linear, logical plot. Watching it at night will also keep the Dark CityÖwell, dark. In a cinematic world where fantasy and sci-fi seem to be completely dominated by big budget superhero movies that are just boring predictable clones of each other, this gem is really a pleasure. If you missed it, see it now and if you saw it and didnít understand it or like it, watch it again.