ALPHABET MOVIE CLUB: Dark City
WEEK 4- "D"
Nominees: Dark Passage, Double Indemnity, Dark City, Donnie Darko, Dog Day Afternoon
Winner: Dark City (director's cut)
Background: 1998's Dark City was the follow-up directorial effort from Alex Proyas following the fateful Brandon Lee graphic novel adaptation of The Crow. Working from a very unique script developed by David S. Goyer (known predominantly for the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy), Lem Dobbs, and himself, Dark City combined noir mystery with science fiction, much like Blade Runner from earlier in the "Alphabet Film Club." The result was just as visually stunning, yet polarizing/confusing as Ridley Scott's cult classic, earning just a scant $27 million at the American box office. Coming out a year before The Matrix, the movie was, in a way, ahead of its time with the ideas of controlled civilizations and created dream worlds.
Kiefer Sutherland begins Dark City delivering a prologue as Dr. Daniel Schreber describing a dying alien race know as the "Strangers" who have come to Earth with the technology to alter physical reality or "tune" our world at will. We have become their desperate science experiment to save their mortality. Every night at midnight in the perpetually nighttime setting of East City, all life and machines stop and are remolded by the controlling Strangers, with the help of Dr. Schreber. Everything stops but John Murdoch.
Before he became a professional movie villain (A Knight's Tale, The Legend of Zorro, Tristan and Isolde, The Illusionist, and the upcoming Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), British actor Rufus Sewell starred as our protagonist Murdoch, a desperate man who awakens in a bathtub at midnight with no memories and surrounding by a grisly murder scene. Murdoch gets an ominous phone call from Dr. Schreber that he's being hunted and flees the scene before the pale-faced, trench-coated, knife-wielding, and black hat-clad gang of "Strangers" can catch him. Trailing behind and also interested in Murdoch is the human police detective Bumstead (William Hurt), who thinks Murdoch has killed multiple women in the same fashion.
Trying to piece together his history and memories from the few clues he has, Murdoch continues to evade the Strangers and the police while encountering remnants of his supposed past, in the form of his wife (Jennifer Connelly), names, objects, and places he supposedly recognizes. By being the only human not frozen at midnight each night, Murdoch discovers that he has powers unlike common men which adds to the mystery. Dark City is Murdoch's quest to find his own answers and pull back the curtain to what's really going on in the world.
Reaction: 3 STARS-- I had missed seeing Dark City 14 years ago and I blame the horror-vibe of the trailer. It just wasn't my scene. Watching it now, I couldn't help but bring new and more mature eyes to the film. Dark City is an immensely challenging film to watch and "read," so to speak. Its ideas, implications, and revelations dealing with mortality, the human soul, reality, memories, and the parallels to Christ within a science fiction setting are so big that they are daunting to buy into (and a slow start with a lot of unanswered questions doesn't help). To me, Dark City is more complicated, yet still lesser than Blade Runner.
Without the inevitable and unfair comparisons to The Matrix series that came a year after it, I think Alex Proyas and David S. Goyer bit off more than they could chew when it comes to plot, but I sure admire their effort and balls to make something so challenging (a trait they have maintained in their careers since with Proyas' Knowing and Goyer's work on Batman).
Where Dark City strikingly succeeds is in creating absolute tangible atmosphere. Dark City deftly creates a world both foreign and familiar at the same time to match the clouded tone of its story. Simply put, the movie is incredible to look at. With mixed hues all over the place towards 1940s film noir, early German films, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, the ideology of Franz Kafka, The Twilight Zone, and even a little anime/manga, the movie is a dark palette of incredible artistic expression, from the costumes, the science, and the architecture within the production design. The cinematography angles and camera work are brilliant in both jarring close-ups and ominous wide shots, all at varying speeds. Trevor Jones' score has some heft and doesn't fall into the horror cues I expected. While the story lost me, the visuals won me over, especially when the doors are blown off by the story's climax.
LESSON #1: THE MANIPULATION OF REALITY-- Like the other films Dark City is compared to (The Matrix series, The Thirteenth Floor, Memento, Inception), the mystery at play is the manipulation of reality. Characters are not aware of what is real and what is not and that becomes the central quest. Discovery of surrounding and history becomes as important as self-discovery. Good films of this type either let the audience in on this dramatic irony or, contrarily, hook us by having us as much in the dark as the characters. The really good ones dance between both. Dark City is close to that.
LESSON #2: THE POWER OF INDIVIDUALITY AND ESSENCE OF IDENTITY-- What the Strangers need from us humans in Dark City is the understanding of what makes us unique. They can't tap into it, but we call it our "soul" or "spark." The soul or spark is our individuality and identity. No matter how hard myth or science fiction try, no two are alike and it can't be duplicated or manipulated. There's an essence and power that comes from that which the Strangers can't muster or comprehend.
LESSON #3: THE VALUE OF THE SUM OF OUR MEMORIES-- One essential question mused over in Dark City is the the idea that our "soul" is the sum of our memories, no more no less. Murdoch, a man without memories other than the false ones manufactured for him, proves that it's bigger than that. Our memories may shape our lives and never leave our so-called soul, but that doesn't mean that a soul can't exist without them. Memories are only the layers, not the core of one's soul. What's the core? Well that's the hard part that no movie or book can explain. Once again, Dark City courageously reaches to tackle these heavy notions.