Blog Directory CineVerse: Shedding light on Dark City, a largely forgotten sci-fi standout

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

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