Blog Directory CineVerse: April 2024

Shedding light on Dark City, a largely forgotten sci-fi standout

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Many film fans place The Matrix (the first outing, not the sequels) on a high pedestal as a completely original work that marked a sea change in both science-fiction filmmaking and visual effects. That movie is certainly deserving of plaudits, and it stands as a remarkable vision and an exemplary cinematic action-fantasy 25 years later. But truth is, it cribs heavily from a predecessor in the same category that was released one year earlier: Alex Proyas’ Dark City, which could be the best neo-noir sci-fi film since Blade Runner. Boasting a distinctive cast including Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, and William Hurt, the storyline follows John Murdoch (Sewell), awakening in a hotel room devoid of memory, pursued by enigmatic beings named the "Strangers" who possess the ability to manipulate reality and dominate the city's denizens. As John unravels the mysteries surrounding his identity and the city's nature, he finds himself entangled in a quest to reclaim his past and thwart the Strangers' sinister agenda.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week.

What makes Dark City stand out? The potent visual references to classic noir, the early works of Fritz Lang, and even the paintings of Edward Hopper are evident in the art direction, set designs, and atmospheric cinematography (which recalls the best years of classic noir). It’s also an influential work that has inspired subsequent filmmakers and artists with its distinctive vision and narrative complexity. While it bombed at the box office, it has earned its rightful status as an enduring cult classic appreciated by cinephiles around the world.

Aside from its impressive visual style, Dark City lingers long in the imagination because it’s a thinking-person’s sci-fi, bursting with profound philosophical themes. Its narrative unfolds as a mesmerizing puzzle, gradually unveiling layers of intrigue and suspense as the protagonist navigates the enigmatic depths of the city and his own past.

The film is neatly divided into two parts, with the first half resembling traditional noir and pursuing the wrong man/detective mystery narrative, and the second half presenting deeper philosophical and thematic explorations as the story veers headlong into modern science-fiction. While this traces a somewhat predictable good conquers evil trajectory for most of the runtime, the ending (SPOILERS AHEAD) is a bit pessimistic, suggesting that, while the nefarious Strangers have been defeated, the surviving human beings are destined to remain trapped in their false identities and manipulated perceptions, so that victory is merely an illusion.

Dark City suggests that our true inherent humanity cannot be extracted or completely manipulated by external forces. The Strangers attempt to study unwittingly imprisoned earthlings to distill or rob from them the essence that makes them humans. But Murdoch’s unexpected resistance and defiance prove that human beings are unpredictable and unique and can defy categorization because they have the innate capacity for independent thought and free will.

According to Roger Ebert, “Dark City…resembles its great silent predecessor Metropolis in asking what it is that makes us human, and why it cannot be changed by decree. Both films are about false worlds created to fabricate ideal societies, and in both the machinery of the rulers is destroyed by the hearts of the ruled. Both are parables in which a dangerous weapon attacks the order of things: a free human who can see what really is, and question it. Dark City contains a threat more terrible than any of the horrors in Metropolis, because the rulers of the city can control the memories of its citizens; if we are the sum of all that has happened to us, then what are we when nothing has happened to us?...Are men inherently good or evil, or is it a matter of how they think of themselves?

Dark City is also an examination of what defines our identities, and the extent to which our collective memories make us human, characterize our existence, and impact our perceptions. The film postulates that we are a product of our experiences and emotionally motivated by our memories yet driven to search for answers to existential questions. Emma is convinced that she loves John, which is something that can’t be faked; yet her memories of meeting and being married to John were false ones implanted by the aliens.

What’s more, Dark City offers a fresh take on the “reality versus fantasy” theme, challenging perceptions of truth and casting doubt on the genuineness of the world crafted by external powers. Additionally, the narrative underscores the struggle between free will and control, as Murdoch and other characters confront the concept of agency within a realm where their actions may be predetermined or influenced by unseen entities.

This film also reminds us of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which depicts individuals confined within a cavern, constrained to observe solely the flickering shadows projected by objects traversing before a fire positioned behind them. These shadows symbolize the constrained understanding of reality that typifies the majority, implying that genuine wisdom can solely be achieved through philosophical enlightenment and the exploration of deeper truths transcending surface impressions. As in that allegory, the denizens of Dark City aren’t aware they are captives in a controlled environment and require someone’s escape to shed truth on the reality of their existence. And, like many tales from Greek mythology, Dark City places humans as pawns in the schemes of a higher power.

Similar works

  • The Matrix
  • Angel Heart
  • Metropolis
  • M
  • Brazil
  • Blade Runner
  • Total Recall
  • The Thirteenth Floor
  • Existenz
  • The Adjustment Bureau
  • The Truman Show
  • Time Bandits
  • Anime films like Akira, Megazone 23, and Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer
  • Inception
  • The Game
  • The City of Lost Children
  • Delicatessen
  • Batman and Batman Returns
  • Looper
  • Vertigo
  • The works of Franz Kafka

Other films by Alex Proyas

  • The Crow
  • I, Robot
  • Knowing
  • Gods of Egypt


The problems that confront the average man--but with a little sex

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Sullivan's Travels, released in 1941 and helmed by Preston Sturges—the first screenwriter to successfully transition to Hollywood director and get his name above the title to boot—tells the tale of John L. Sullivan, a prosperous Hollywood director portrayed by Joel McCrea. Sullivan fed up with making frivolous, disposable entertainment, is driven by a desire to create a meaningful cinematic portrayal of societal struggles, so he decides to rough it as a hobo and venture into the realm of poverty and hardship firsthand. Before long, he befriends a blonde with Hollywood starlet dreams (Veronica Lake), and Sullivan learns the value of humility, empathy, and the transformative power of humor.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this movie, conducted last week, click here.

Sullivan's Travels cleverly critiques Hollywood's inclination toward producing shallow, diversionary content, urging reflection on the ethical responsibilities of artists and filmmakers. The titular character’s transition from opulence to destitution serves as a lens through which the film explores themes of class division and the hardships endured by the marginalized, especially during the Great Depression. It remains a seminal work—possibly Sturges’ best—and an early example of a “meta” film that has left an indelible mark on cinema.

Notably, this movie features striking changes in tone, from action picture to farce/parody to slapstick comedy to social message movie to romance to dark drama. The film’s visual palette also changes tone accordingly, from brightly lit/low contrast standard Hollywood lighting to chiaroscuro high contrast lighting indicative of film noir and horror.

While it’s arguably unclassifiable in any particular category, it’s probably best remembered as a semi-screwball comedy; it features a plethora of comic movie devices, including a portrait that alters its expression, sped-up car chases, pratfalls into swimming pools, and other visual gags.

Although there is a shameful scene in which a Black cook is the butt of a terribly racist joke, it depicts later African American characters with a level of respect and dignity that was uncommon for this period in cinema history.

Curiously, the “girl” (played wonderfully by Lake) is never given a name, keeping her an enigma. Sullivan and his sexy sidekick are also shown sleeping next to each other in the flophouse and boxcar; earlier, we see her sitting on Sullivan’s bed as he lies in it. This flouts the strict censorship of the era that dictated separate sleeping quarters for lovers. Recall, too, how the director and his producers talk explicitly about the box-office value of sex appeal, a rarity for a 1941 picture.

Consider how the film showcases quirky and creative choices by Sturges: extended montages with no dialogue tell a lot of the story; there’s an unexpected musical number a la the black gospel choir; and the first conversation with the studio suits is one long, continuous 4-minute shot.

The film offers a warts-and-all, no-pulled-punches look at the impoverished and destitute, which makes it a bit bleak and eye-opening, especially for a 1941 comedy. In fact, it’s one of the best-known Hollywood feature films that depicts the harsh reality of the Great Depression and its aftermath. Yet, despite the occasional somber tone, Sturges also irreverently pokes fun at virtually everyone and everything in “Sullivan’s Travels”—from the shyster producers and their obsequious underlings to the overly ambitious director—everyone except the poor, homeless, and imprisoned, who are depicted as sympathetic.

Sullivan’s Travels is a work replete with thematic ruminations. It explores the push and pull between commerce vs. art and popular entertainment vs. creative works intended to have deeper significance. It reminds us of the universal power of laughter, which can unite people of any background and uplift even the most downtrodden. It’s a treatise on the wide gap between the haves and the have-nots in America, as well as the artificiality and superficiality of the movie industry and Hollywood. And—fittingly for Sturges, who has been credited as one of the first Hollywood directors to significantly infuse irony in his creations—irony is a theme unto itself in Sullivan’s Travels. Ponder how Sullivan is driven by a social conscience to abandon the calling that made him a success (comedy directing) for socially relevant message pictures and connecting with the common man; this endeavor, however, ends in tragedy: he’s attacked by the kind of down-and-out man he’s trying to help, and he’s later thrown in prison.

What lesson does Sullivan learn? Don’t try to be pretentious or patronizing or adopt the mantle of a social justice warrior; people go to the cinema to be entertained, not necessarily to see real life.

The film also serves as a clever satire of self-important Hollywood types who condescend to the common man and the poor: The fact that Sullivan abandons his “O Brother Where Art Thou” type movie and goes back to formulaic comedies seems to be a subtle criticism of pretentious filmmakers who aspire to make socially conscious message movies, including contemporary directors of this period like Frank Capra and producers such as Daryll Zanuck. Sturges later wrote in his autobiography: “After I saw a couple of pictures put out by some of my fellow comedy directors, which seemed to have abandoned the fun in favor of the message, I wrote Sullivan’s Travels to satisfy an urge to tell them that they were getting a little too deep-dish; to leave the preaching to the preachers.”

It’s possible to interpret Sullivan as an avatar for or representative of Sturges himself, who continued to make comedies that changed in tone and mood as Sullivan’s Travels does.

Confused about the significance of the film’s title? It’s a play on the name of another famous satire of its time, “Gulliver’s Travels,” written by Jonathan Swift, whose main character treks into strange lands populated by odd peoples. Interestingly, John L. Sullivan, the movie protagonist’s name, was also the name of the late popular boxer and heavyweight champion.

Similar works

  • O Brother Where Art Thou, which the Coen brothers conceived as the kind of movie that Sullivan might have created if he went through with it
  • Many Chaplin films, such as Modern Times and The Kid
  • The Big Picture, another film about an ambitious filmmaker who is seduced by big Hollywood dreams and abandons his original vision
  • My Man Godfrey, in its depiction of Depression-era haves/have-nots
  • The Player, in its skewering of vapid and superficial Hollywood
  • The Day of the Locust, yet another biting satire of blood-sucking Hollywood types

Other works by Preston Sturges

  • The Great McGinty
  • The Palm Beach Story
  • The Lady Eve
  • The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
  • Hail the Conquering Hero
  • Christmas in July


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