What makes a human human? What is the soul? Are we just a collection of memories and a conglomeration of our past experiences? Or is there something else? Some spark of individualism or wisp of consciousness that makes us more than just a sack of blood, guts and impulses? This is the central question behind the visionary and disquieting film Dark City. This is not the only big question tackled by this stylish, bold film. Writer, director Alex Proyas wears his influences (German Expressionism, 1940’s film-noir and the classic era of Sci-Fi and Horror) on his sleeve and with the bold, almost over-the-top themes of self-determination and individualism he has created a film that sits comfortably next to the classics it pays homage to while pushing the genre forward.
The film begins with protagonist, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) waking up naked and disoriented in an unfamiliar, dingy hotel room. Things get immediately worse as he discovers a dead and mutilated woman in the room with him, and soon finds himself being pursued by police (in the person of an icy cold William Hurt) and even more ominously, a group of pale, trench-coated “aliens” known only as The Strangers. The film propels forward at a breakneck speed in a dizzying series of ominous revelations. Giving away any points of the plot would destroy the momentum the film so beautifully builds, but rest assured that, in spite of an initial sense of confusion in the viewer, all is revealed by the time it reaches its satisfying conclusion. An ambitious plot with heady themes and an intellectually honest attempt to address “the big questions” puts Dark City ahead of the pack to start, but the most exhilarating aspect is the endlessly changing and fascinating visual style it achieves.
The un-named, yet familiar city inhabited by John Murdoch is an ever-changing conglomeration of facades cast in a pallid nighttime glow. Like Metropolis, Blade Runner or Brazil before it or The Matrix and Inception after, an environment free of specific time and place references yet all too familiar exists, making us simultaneously comforted and disoriented. It is that dream-like quality of “seems like I’ve been here before” similar to deja-vu experiences that make Dark City unforgettable. Rarely has a film gotten the look so right. As though stepping into an M.C.Escher painting, stairways exist and we have an intuitive sense of how they work, but in this dream the laws of gravity, time and space have been recalibrated so that the familiar is changed, our past experiences prove to be a broken compass pointing somewhere unknown. Landmarks and institutions that should provide clues to what is happening just reinforce the sense of being lost.
I realize all of this description gives you no idea what the movie is really about. Simply put, it is science fiction of the polemic, revelatory school, like a big budget, grown up version of Star Trek or The Twilight Zone. There are special effects, themes lifted from mythology, beings from other planets, revocation of the laws of physics and ultimately a cosmic battle for the very soul of man. It is a hugely ambitious film that succeeds on many levels. At points during the finale it might veer a little too much into the hands of the special effects wizards, although in its favor is the fact that being filmed in 1998 almost none of the big action is CGI; however the conclusion is satisfying by a fairly rigorous intellectual standard. The idea that mankind is a rare and wonderful animal whose very existence would drive other species to jealously covet what we alone have: our humanity is a theme that can be endlessly and creatively explored. Alex Proyas’ Dark City is an essential entry into the canon.
- Paul Epstein