Millennial Malaise 11: Dark City

In Which the World is What We Make It

Sci-fi in the late 20th century was obsessed with memory, or more specifically how memory impacts the basic concept of human nature. That a collection of experiences can build identity, are the defining features of the self, and these experiences combined with the ability to make decisions is what separates us from the purely technical and mechanical. I can’t say with authority why this obsession started to crop up during this time, but the encroachment of personal technology and the integration of world wide networks of communication seem to strike at the heart of the matter. In our culture we struggle to define what humanity is, and usually pit it against artificial systems that have more access to information than any one person can hope for. If our sense of selves is just derived from pieces of information stuck in our head, what makes us different from the artificial.

All the films I’ve talked about this month have this idea living in the corners of the frame: Johnny Mnemonic with the brain implants and information overload, Ghost in the Shell with a hacker who is able to fabricate memories to control people, and eventually in The Matrix where machines control reality. What’s interesting about Dark City is that it traffics in some of the same thematic material while also stylistically deviating from the cyberpunk aesthetic that dominates the other films. Dark City abstracts the ideas of control and the nature of humanity and then sublimate them into a defiantly retroist world: a film that owes more to Lang and Gilliam than to Blade Runner and Gibson.

A lot of the cyberpunk I’ve covered deliberately plays into the framework of the noir. The isolated detective looking for meaning, the cityscape as metaphor, and the reflective encounters with antagonists are all staples of both genres. Dark City however goes out its way to be a pure noir pastiche with none of the tech elements of other sci-fi films. This is an analog story not a digital one. A world where the rules run on clockwork and not binary, and every visual and storytelling decision that director Alex Proyas whips up reflects that ideology even when the film fully dips into the fantastic.

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So what is that story. Well it starts as a classic wrong man set up. John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a hotel with no memory of how he got there, a dead prostitute is strewn on the floor, and a mysterious Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland doing his best Peter Lorre impersonation) calls him on the phone and tells him to run. As the eternal night wears on Murdoch discovers his wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly) has coordinated with the police, lead by Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt), to track him down for the crimes he didn’t commit. All of this leads him to discover the twisted secret of the city. It’s controlled by a group of telekinetic aliens called The Strangers who are experimenting on humanity, every few hours redrawing the city and implanting memories into the hapless citizenry to find what really makes people tick, their perceived memories or innate sense of humanity. Murdoch eventually discovers he has the same powers as The Strangers, and defeats them to remake the city into a place where one could live in peace.

So the film sets up a classic theme of programming versus human nature. Are people only the sum of their experiences, or do they have innate emotional characteristics that make them unique. Proyas decides to play this game with a distinct look that harkens back to mid-century sci-fi and noir, earlier expressionist filmmaking from the 20’s and 30’s, and a dash of the giant backlot productions of features like Brazil and Batman. The world Proyas constructs is a perfectly engineered piece of set design meant to feed into the sense of control exerted by outside forces. The city is constructed in a giant spiral that leads nowhere while simultaneously mirroring the look of a large clock. The Strangers’ play the role of omniscient tinkerers always fussing with their social experiment to determine if their really is a human soul.

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This leads to a picture that is an absolutely staggering piece of production design, art direction, and cinematography. The whole thing oozes immaculate style: twisting streets that terminate in dead ends, bleary neon light slicing through the nauseating yellow/green haze, paranoid police officers scribbling spirals over cramped corridors, and the fantastical mechanisms of the Strangers’ lair. Everything is suffused with confusion and uncertainty, and it reaches a astonishing pinnacle during the sequences where The Strangers’ remake the city. A smart interplay of model work, CG, and giant sets create these Escher like visions of buildings twirling out of the ground and doors appearing out of walls. The effect is dizzying and literalizes some of the meta-narrative baked into the noir structure; the city as a reflection of the mental state of the protagonist, and since John is a blank slate that can be changed at will so does the city around him.

Unfortunately this direct engagement with the essence of noir does directly lead to some structural issues with narrative. Proyas wants this to play like a mystery, and everything in the setup points to a classic story of a man discovering the circumstances of his situation. However, somewhere along the way Proyas (or the studio) got scared that their dizzying premise might be too alienating and confusing, and they started to undercut the mysterious nature of the film.

You see Dark City gives up the game at the end of the first act. By minute 25 the audience knows that the city is controlled by a nefarious cabal of creatures who can manipulate the world around the inhabitants. The problem is by the time the audience is keyed to this info almost none of the main characters are hip to the true nature of the city. This creates a damaging chain of exposition where every ten to fifteen minutes characters stop to explain the premise of the film to somebody else.

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The most salient example involves the deranged detective Eddie (Colin Friels). You see he’s gone off the deep end drawing spirals and questioning why he can’t remember the past clearly. In a beautifully staged scene Bumstead visits Eddie in his cluttered apartment. The room is covered in murals of spirals and infested with pests. Eddie knows that the world is wrong, that his memory is not his own, and even his wife is a mere construct, but he just can’t figure out what the cause of it is. Bumstead’s visit unnerves him, but provides important context for trying to find Murdoch. Annoyingly all tension in the scene is undermined by the one directly preceding it. A sequence where one of The Strangers threatens Dr. Schreber. The Stranger helpfully outlines everything that concerns Eddie: the city is a construct, people have new memories implanted in them, and the world is rearranged on a consistent basis. The film offers answers before asking the questions, and since this isn’t a Memento style structure it feels like sloppy storytelling.

This issue is accentuated by some puzzling decisions with the characterization and thematic work as well. John Murdoch is intentionally a blank slate, a way to literalize the idea of human nature triumphing over programmed memories. But that also makes him a dull character to follow if the actor isn’t up to the challenge. He is a vessel for information (and that translates into psychic powers like The Strangers) but not really a person, and Sewell does not have the chops to pull off the charisma needed to turn nothing into something.

The film also can’t decide what the answer to it’s question about control versus innate humanity. The Strangers are looking for the spark that makes human unique, and use the memory swapping as an experiment. They dictate people’s pasts to see if it will alter their actions, but this doesn’t seem to lead anywhere because outside of John, Eddie, and Dr. Schreber no character brakes out of their routines. So it seems that programming is what dictates humanity. But then it’s not so, because John is a mutant, an evolution of humanity that can interact with the world in the same way that The Strangers’ do. So this raises an issue, is the movie saying that our innate humanity allows to exist beyond our memories or that our ability to evolve past our current state is where our true humanity lies? Some sections suggest the former (John tells a Stranger that they should have been exploring the heart and not the head) and some the latter (John’s fingerprints form a perfect spiral which shows us he has moved beyond humanity).

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The crux of the problem remains that the films staggering noir inflected visuals doesn’t properly synthesize the meta-textual understanding of noir with the narrative being told. It’s a mystery that gives up the answers, a meditative thriller that swerves into a grand action finale that is nothing more than two characters shooting telekinetic brain blasts at each other. Dark City is an astonishing technical and visual achievement, and ranks with decades best features like T2, Jurassic Park, and The Matrix on sheer look alone, but it can never get its story, characters, and themes fully together to create wholly unified experience.

Odds and Ends

  • Never take my mixed response to something as an indictment in any way. It’s just a reaction to the experience of watching something. Dark City is absolutely worth seeing.
  • Roger Ebert famously loved this movie (four stars) for its production and unconventional narrative structure. This is a move that’s easy to fall for, especially because it slipped through the cracks of the culture at large making it a great underdog to champion.
  • There is a direct connection between Dark City and The Matrix. The Wachowskis’ movie shot on some of the same sets used for Dark City. The color schemes of both films are also shockingly similar. Though to call The Matrix a ripoff of Dark City would be a step to far.
  • Kiefer Sutherland is truly unhinged in this movie.

As always follow me on twitter for the hottest takes, check out the letterboxd list of possible films, and why don’t you take a listen to my podcast.

Next week Matrix Month concludes with a celebration of the 20th anniversary of 1999’s The Matrix.