The urchins are writhing around in the mud,
Like eels playing tag in a barrel
The old Sally Army sound mournful and sweet
As they play an old Chrssmassy carol;
The world is as black as a dark night in hell
What kind of a place can this be?
–Richard Thompson, “The Sun Never Shines on the Poor”
“They built a city to see what makes us tick. Last night one of us went off.”
–Tag-line for Dark City
I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask some of you to leave. Right now. You’re not going to rent Dark City. You know that, and I know that. Walk away. Check out the classifieds. Reread Tom’s column. Feed the dog. Contemplate something. Just don’t argue with me.
Still here? Okay, just let me ask you one question. It’s kind of personal, but then you’re the one who’s still hanging around. The nights are getting longer, darker. There’s more time to sit by the fire and daydream as winter settles in. Your imagination drifts and you see yourself……where? In a clean, brightly-lit hospital corridor, smiling through the operating room window at the young child whose life you’ve miraculously saved by recognizing the signs of an imminent cerebral hemorrhage that trained physicians refused to acknowledge until, like Joan of Arc, you managed to convince them that you had knowledge that transcended rational understanding?
Ooooooh, wrong answer. The correct answer was: amnesiac and naked next to a dead body in a cheap hotel in an artificial city controlled by aliens. Now do you see why I asked you to leave?
For those of you who answered correctly, welcome to the rest of this review. You probably already know that amnesia is one of the classic plot lines of film noir. The victim is usually male, nondescript. Circumstantial evidence implicates him in a particularly heinous crime. The police are the least of his worries. The world is filled with strangers who want him dead. If he’s lucky, there’s a woman out there who’ll believe in his innocence and help him find the Truth. If he’s not so lucky, the screenplay will have him double-crossed and dying in an alley filled with blowing newspapers and some really cool chiaroscuro.
With Dark City (1998) Egyptian-born, Australia-raised director Alex Proyas chooses the more upbeat scenario. But what in less talented hands would be the whole movie, in Proyas’s is just the springboard to the creation of one of the most baroque worlds ever captured on celluloid. You will not have seen anything quite like Dark City. This movie has the kind of visual punch that causes people to run out and spend their children’s college money on DVD players, surround sound, and high definition televisions. I recommend watching it when you’re broke and not prone to temptation. To be on the safe side, let someone else hold onto your credit cards until the twitching subsides.
I’ve got a lot more to say about the look of Dark City, but first a few more words about the plot. Not satisfied with simply working the film noir scenario described earlier, Alex Proyas grafted on a classic science fiction plot-line. An alien race has kidnapped some earth folks and planted them in a maze-like, generic city to observe the workings of the human soul. Their own civilization is, naturally, dying, and they feel that an infusion of some old-fashioned human irrationality will act as a kind of cosmic Viagra.
The aliens, called the Strangers, are delectably sinister and refreshingly free from anything remotely resembling a conscience: pasty, bald, insectile, leather-clad, homburg-wearing, black-coated creepoids with names like Mr. Hand (Richard O’Brien, Riff-Raff from the Rocky Horror Picture Show), Mr. Book (Ian Richardson) and Mr. Wall (Bruce Spence). Incarnating a sort of anti-Zen, they move by literally drifting through the city like crematorial smoke. Think Nosferatu crossed with some paintings by René Magritte. The Strangers also have a telekinetic power they called “tuning.” By focusing their collective mental energies they can morph reality into any shape they desire. The production and design crews of Dark City have succeeded in erasing the cinematic line between conception and execution. They’ve created a dark ballet with shapeshiftin buildings and rooms instead of dancers. It used to be that only Loony Tunes animators had this kind of power. Now, with supercomputers on desktops, reality is plastic.
Collaborating with the Strangers in their experiments is a human scientist, Dr. Daniel Poe Schreber, who has found a way to distill memory into something that can sucked into a syringe and mainlined into the brain. As Schreber, Kiefer Sutherland is over the top and loving it. He’s perfected a speech impediment that causes. Him. to speak. sort of like. thisssss. Yessssss? He looks like a myopic rat who’s had too many close calls while scrounging through garbage cans. Sutherland’s performance is nicely matched with that of William Hurt as the stoic cop, Inspector Frank Bumstead, who is so world weary that Armageddon would only bother him because of the paperwork involved. He deadpans lines like, “I just take what they give me, Husselbeck” and “What kind of killer stops to save a dying fish?” His sole worldly possession is an accordion allegedly given to him by his mother. Go figure.
The laboratory in which Schreber and the aliens conduct their unwholesome experiments, the film’s tour de force special effects showpiece, is Dark City itself. Picture someplace like New York, after sundown, circa 1940, with architecture somewhere between art deco, gothic and Franz Kafka. Everything is generic: the hotel sign says HOTEL, the corner store says FOOD, the diner’s neon says AUTOMAT. No subway leads out of town. It’s never daylight. You fall asleep at midnight as a tenement-dwelling, blue-collar worker complaining about layoffs, and wake up as a penthouse capitalist planning the next round of cuts.
Someone described the look of Dark City as Edward Hopper meets Fritz Lang. I like that. Fritz Lang was the great German expressionist filmmaker whose Metropolis (1926) and M (1931) were visionary works that proved cinema was without limits even before the age of sound, color, and binary code. Much of Dark City, particularly the scenes with the Strangers and their massed “tuning”, is a tribute to Lang. He would have approved of both Proyas’ theme of the power of the individual versus the collective, and the special effects Götterdämmerung that literally brings down the houses.
Hopper was a turn-of-the-century American realist painter whose canvases often made buildings seem as lonely as people. Dark City is a very lonely place. What else would you expect from aliens looking for a soul? As they themselves admit, “We fashioned this city on stolen memories—different eras, different pasts—all rolled into one. Each night we revise it, refine it, in order to learn….We use your dead as vessels.”
Ever since 2001: A Space Odyssey, we’ve had movie aliens who are smarter than we are. Dark City is a return to the Good Old Days when you couldn’t keep a good human down. As amnesia victim John Murdoch, who uncovers his true identity at the same time he discovers the special powers he shares with those hunting him, actor Rufus Sewell makes both a convincing everyman and an avenger of Biblical proportions. “The recesses of darkness he discloses, and brings forth the light.” Sure, humanity is just as likely to be accidentally composted by an Intergalactic Recycling Expedition from another galaxy, but in the meantime science fiction can still get us earthlings a little respect.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
For me, Dark City remains a cool mashup of Raymond Chandler, Metropolis, Nosferatu, Edward Hopper, Jack Vettriano, James Avati, Blade Runner, The Matrix, and all those movies & TV shows where characters wake up with blood on their hands and no memory of what’s happened to them or who they are. Word of Advice: watch the Director’s Cut—there’s a crucial and very effective change to the beginning of the film. Another Word of Advice: watch this on the biggest screen you’ve got access to. Because I wound up downloading the film off iTunes for this update, I watched it on our 78-inch flatscreen. Way, way too small. The city transformation scenes and the final climactic confrontation cry out for the full home theatre treatment with surround sound and a ten-foot screen, minimum.
Full disclosure: I still have a bit of a crush on Jennifer Connelly. I think it started with The Rocketeer, back in 1991. Her January 2002 appearance on the David Letterman Show was, um, memorable. The following year, Ms. Connelly picked up an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in A Beautiful Mind.
I don’t have crushes on William Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, Rufus Sewell, Ian Richardson or Richard O’Brien, but their performances are perfectly matched to Dark City’s retro-future-gothic-deco noir.
Director Alex Proyas has made only four feature films in the twenty years since Dark City. His preference seems to have been to work on short films. He has directed about 100 music videos.
Roger Ebert called Dark City the best film of 1998, and included it in his The Great Movies III anthology. You’ll find that review at rogerebert.com. Ebert describes how at the Hawaii Film Festival he went through the film a shot at a time over four days with a group of moviegoers. His conclusion: “I am simply grateful for this shot,” I said in Hawaii more than once. “it is as well done as it can possibly be.” Many other great films give you the same feeling—that their makers were carried far beyond the actual requirements of their work into the passion of creating something wonderful.
The Imdb Trivia page for Dark City contains this interesting entry:
This film deals with ‘Last Thursdayism’, a philosophy described in a satiric comment by 20th-century historian Bertrand Russell, referring to the “Omphalos” papers (1857) of Philip Gosse. Last Thursdayism says that the world (with us and our own basic memories included) could have been created recently, even last Thursday, but we cannot demonstrate such a thing because the world would have been created to look like an older world.