Dark City: Solving the Us Illusion

The grand question in The Matrix, the steam that propelled its ship through three films with extremely diminishing returns, begins with the fact that the world in which we live might be fake. The result is a kind of limp resignation: if true, then what’s the point of that world? The films destroy it while seeking out the “real” world, which is a sewer full of dingy people barely redeemed from their squalor by a supercilious Jesus man (I'm not saying The Matrix movies are bad, just that they tend to think rather badly of us). Dark City, which asks similar questions on many of the same sets at Fox Studios Australia a full year before The Matrix, asks them to another degree. Even if the world was fake, we would still have our selves, our immutable memories and experiences. But if those were fake, if the way we perceived everything was fabricated into new identities that couldn’t recall ever being someone else, then what would be left of us?

Dark City is about no less than answering that question with the human soul, extrapolated from film history, from different genres, from perfect deep focus shots of empty alleys and wet streets, from hallways that turn into personal labyrinths. It uses film noir as it has always been used, to brush off the niceties and find out what people really look like. It is an essential film, made of many eras, film history compressed into motion. It asks what would be left of us if society, identity, even memory no longer had any power over us. And unlike the films it inspired, Dark City actually has an answer. I’m saying that even after its incredible ordeal, even after losing everything, these characters have something left. Finding out what it could be is worth the journey alone.

It’s not concerned so much with love in real life as with the version of it that pops up in the movies. Noir is less accustomed with the feeling than to searching for it: the best of them come close. That’s why those films force love into a place where there’s no warmth, conducting humans with hard-tack dialogue rather than niceties, and let the bad guys win sometimes and worse: they let the good guys stay bad. Noir gets something about us that Dark City hopes to cull for a new age: this is noir discovering why it’s always acted the way that it does. “After all,” Alonzo Emmerich said in The Asphalt Jungle, “crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.”

Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt) investigates the case of a serial killer with increasing unease. He can’t seem to figure out what motivates these hookers’ deaths, or the spirals carved into their bare chests, and he chocks it up to missing a fragment of the killer’s nature in the clues. When he pours over them, he’s assessing a tiny universe: so many movies are sitting over his shoulder, waiting to see if he’ll figure something out. But there’s nothing for him to figure out because the crime is a manufactured form of a species attempting to understand human endeavor. (It should be noted that the theatrical cut of the film includes a monologue that spoils most of the film from the beginning. It’s a simpering compromise to a film that must have confused a test audience. It makes the movie as weak as the studio believed of us. The director’s cut that I watched for this review remedies this situation, but I won’t tread a confusing line and will use these spoilers freely. If you haven’t seen the film, stop now.)

The Watchers – which have ashen faces perched on studded leather, like Agent Smith by way of Pinhead – conduct an experiment in the closed system of Dark City. They reshape the elements of the people, their buildings and memories and experiences, and observe how this changes them. They hope to discover what makes us endurable and unique because they are dying a slow, cosmic, collective death, of a whole civilization made anonymous by oneness. They pause a heated conversation over a meager meal in a workman’s apartment and transfer the couple to a life of luxury and alter their memories accordingly. Yet, the work-talk and marital squabbling is almost identical. Dark City wonders how an outside eye would view a people whose problems don’t change with their station, who act from a universal nature and yet would argue that the most important thing about them is their individuality.

John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) is the miracle, the result of the experiment that would give them the answer if they had the capacity to see it. He alone can see the changes that the Watchers make in the city, and he retains fragments of his real self through the mind alteration. He is humanity mutated into an inalterable individual, who can hold on to his reality despite technology vast enough to be considered magic. He is the hope at the end of Alex Proyas’ visionary cynicism, the element that defies the Watchers’ nihilistic approach to the human brain (without him, Dark City would be more like Mulholland Drive, a wash of dreamy hopelessness and predestined angst). He loves Emma (Jennifer Connelly), though he feels that he may not know her. He suspects that the first time they ever met might have been the night she argued with him about leaving her, despite his pleas that he doesn’t know her, though he feels that he should.

Such is the Watchers’ great power in the city: rarely has a movie villain felt as all-encompassing. They have the ability to alter what form the plot takes, and what it means in the scheme of movies. At first, it’s a noir mystery about reclaiming a lost lover; suddenly, they might never have known each other before the film began. Detective Bumstead believes he’s a good man, and yet can’t remember the last time he ever did something during the daytime. We all wander the dark in this film; even the tropes are hazy with alteration.

The film doesn’t take place in any one particular time or place: the Watchers built Dark City out of a collective memory of its people. The buildings rise like nouveau postcards, some cutting into the sky like our idea of the future in the 30s, others with old ambivalence like well-worn London street corners, still others from anywhere in the world. The city never looks the same twice, and the set is one of the most intricate ever put to film. Like Metropolis, the architecture is constructed out of the themes like they were grown for the purpose of enacting the film (and in Dark City, they literally are). The Watchers’ underground lair particularly exudes Fritz Lang: a towering human bust opens to reveal a clockface that stops all the time in the world as the Watchers “tune,” as they call it, a new city out of the next parameters for their grand experiment. Some of it is high-rise and some seedy and neon. It never stops changing, and the film uses it like an instrument for a feeling, favoring deep focus to capture its unnerving breadth, with long desolate views of familiar places made frightening by a tiny change.

Emma sings “Sway” and “The Night has a Thousand Eyes” on a nightclub stage and the camera lifts up like it could be a curtain, like it really could be the middle of the 30s. This really does recall David Lynch, in the way that a starlet can be re-transcribed as a eulogist, a jazz standard turned into a dirge for one last night of drinking in a lifetime of nights (remember the rendition of “Cryin’” at club Silencio?). Dark City represents moviemaking using science fiction to turn the sum of itself into a story, and not just in the way that noir is film’s broody teenage years or that Keifer Sutherland reeks of Peter Lorre with his exasperating doctor character, the one man in Dark City who knows how the world works. The Watchers turn the people of the city into actors playing themselves, trying to prove that the part will change the person. They prove the opposite. The individuals bleed through the data, as an actor can only ever play a part of themselves. There is no illusion of fakery in Dark City because it exposes the illusion of every other film. It is purposefully made of the performances other films are required not to think about; it canonizes film’s illusions and so it makes them real. “All has been prerecorded,” the maestro said in Mulholland Drive. Dark City expands that scene to feature-length, in the form of a blockbuster, in the midst of science fiction. Like each of us, it is a subtle and unrepeatable miracle, a tiny bit of love at the end of all the parts of us that were prerecorded by the universe to begin with. It has a heart like other films wouldn’t dare. I don’t even know what movies would be like if we ever forgot it.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Alex Proyas

Alex Proyas (screenplay and story)

Lem Dobbs (screenplay)

David S. Goyer (screenplay)

John Murdoch Rufus Sewell
Inspector Frank Bumstead William Hurt
Dr. Daniel P. Schreber Kiefer Sutherland
Emma Murdoch Jennifer Connelly
Mr. Hand Richard O'Brien
Mr. Book Ian Richardson
Mr. Wall Bruce Spence

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