331. DARK CITY (1998)

Recommended

“The fleetingly improvised men are transient figures of human shape, which naturally disappear or slowly dissolve after a short period of existence. Their appearance always is the result of a wonder.

Fleetingly improvised men lead a dream life. As a result, they are incapable of entering a regular conversation with people around them.

Fleetingly improvised men sometimes resemble dead people.”–M. Rautenberg, Daniel Paul Schreber: Beginner’s Guide to Memoirs of My Nervous Illness

DIRECTED BY: Alex Proyas

FEATURING: Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, Richard O’Brien,

PLOT: John Murdoch awakens in a bathtub, remembering nothing: certainly not the reason why the dead, mutilated woman is in the other room. As he travels through a night-cursed city to discover his identity, John is simultaneously pursued by a dogged police detective, a psychiatrist who knows more than he lets on, and a coterie of very pale gentlemen in black coats and hats. Ultimately he discovers that his alleged past is just that—and that the forces behind the frame-up are responsible for something far more grand and sinister.

Still from Dark City (1998)

BACKGROUND:

  • The opening narration, included over Alex Proyas’ objections, was included at the insistence of producers who feared the audience would be confused by being thrown into this world. Many fans think it’s a spoiler of the worst kind. Proyas’ director’s cut of the film excises the exposition.
  • Proyas based the Strangers’ looks and mannerisms on Richard O’Brien’s “Riff Raff” from Rocky Horror Picture Show. Proyas also wrote the role of “Mr. Hand” specifically for O’Brien.
  • The Matrix not only ripped off did a variation of Dark City’s central premise, it also re-used a number of its actual sets after Dark City‘s production had wrapped up.
  • Kiefer Sutherland’s character, Dr. Daniel Schreber, was named after an early 20th-century schizophrenic who wrote a memoir of his illness.
  • Proyas intended the final showdown between John Murdoch and Mr Book to be an homage to the famed manga comic (and anime) Akira.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll cast aside the montages of warping buildings, stylish noir streets, and sinister Stranger gatherings in favor of the mirroring scenes of Mr. Hand and John Murdoch after their respective imprints. Both rise from the gurney with comparable looks of grim determination, after painfully twitching through a series of forced memories.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Steampunk brain syringes; quick-rise concrete; creepy kid with teeth

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: About five years ago we argued that Dark City shouldn’t make the list. Since then, our minds have been changed—possibly while we were asleep. Any movie the plot of which can be described as “telekinetic collective memory space jelly bugs abduct tens of thousands of earthlings to populate a jumble-Noir cityscape in perpetual darkness in order to find out more about us” deserves a slot on the list of the weirdest movies ever made. The fact that it follows its dream logic into uncanny valley Gothic visuals is to its credit as well.


Original trailer for Dark City

COMMENTS: Focus. Focus. Every event flows into, bolsters, and undermines every other event. John Murdoch can defeat the Strangers if only he can focus hard enough. I can complete this review only if I do the same—and with so much ground to cover, I probably won’t be as successful as Dark City‘s protagonist. In the late ’90s, director Alex Proyas befuddled the world with his sophomore feature film. That film continues to force people to focus to this day. Cramming countless references and styles together, Proyas created a compelling nightmare that Roger Ebert lauded as the best movie of the yearDark City is a dream quest, a film noir, a thriller—all the while bursting its tension with gallows humor from a glibly defiant humanity. Washed in the color scheme of an Edward Hopper painting gone sour, Dark City is as hard to pin down as the blobulous memories that its story’s catalyst, Doctor Schreber, blends together nightly for the über-mysterious Strangers that control the titular milieu. Dark City is something different to everyone, and its malleability and opacity fuel its weirdness.

The establishing shot—a view of some far-away starscape panning down into a dark behemoth of a metropolis—gives the viewer no sense of location. Our main character, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) aggravates the confusion as, having no sense of identity himself, he provides us no psychological anchor, either. Eventually disparate stylistic threads interweave, giving Dark City a singular but coherently unhelpful grounding. A frantic call from Doctor Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) clarifies that something is wrong (as if we didn’t know). Detective Bumstead (William Hurt) takes on the Murdoch murder case, but why did his predecessor go crazy? Murdoch’s wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly), a sultry film noir jazz club archetype, frets over her husband’s disappearance: but how much does she actually know about him? It is only when things go wrong—and the pale men in black trench-coats appear—that pieces of the narrative slide into place. Foremost among the mysterious Strangers is Mr. Hand (Richard O’Brien), who ultimately sacrifices his mind in pursuit of Murdoch, who himself turns out to be not so much a killer as an experiment gone awry. We follow Murdoch on his frantic journey through the city.

Thematically, the most important element in Dark City is  determinism. Through their experiments, the Strangers hope to discover a means to individuality, but their methodology is erroneously based on a kind of psychological arithmetic: “When we add experiences A, B, C, and D, what kind of ‘E’ can be expected?” I recently experienced a facsimile of this when I was idly reading, for the first time, the little blurb on the back of the movie disc’s case. I discovered that I had repeated the plot summary almost verbatim. Having just watched the movie, my own variables were the same as those of the distributor’s. While the Strangers perhaps attain a sense of progress throughout their changes and refinements, it turns out to be a false one. It is only from an experiment gone wrong, when an unforeseen chance is thrown into the mix, that they make any headway. Murdoch’s violent, subconscious rejection of conditioning, when he telekinetically blasts Schreber’s syringe across the bathroom while asleep, is the first real sign of development the Strangers have seen in who knows how many years of study. With their advanced evolution, they have become committed to the fallacy of “reason.” As Isaac Asimov remarked, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’, but ‘That’s funny…’.” Having very accidentally triggered a promising result, at least they know it’s something to act on.

The hunt for John Murdoch by various authorities through the unforgiving, shadow-riven cityscape cements Dark City firmly in the realm of film noir. It can be more precisely viewed as a subversive mash-up of three different movies. The city itself, as a powerful, towering behemoth—a character in its own right—necessarily brings to mind that grand old silent classic, Metropolis. The city dictates the story, controlling (or at least heavily influencing) its denizens. In a twist on Lang’s original, Proyas places the masters of the city deep underground instead of high above. They are not teetering in an ill-supported castle in the sky, but manipulating the city, and the life therein, from the foundation up.

The pursuit led by the Strangers, and the parallel pursuit by city’s police force, mimics the pursuit of the serial killer Hans Beckert in Fritz Lang’s M. Once again, though, Proyas flips things on their head: Murdoch is, if not a “good guy”, then at least an innocent one. He is chased with the same zeal as the criminal and police elements in M pursue Beckert, but while Lang has the fake authorities (the criminal element) catch their prey first, only to have the killer saved by the police, Proyas has Murdoch first “saved” by the fake authorities (this time, the police), only to be nabbed at the last moment by the Strangers.

From John Murdoch’s point of view, the Fritz Lang film Dark City is most evocative of is Ministry of Fear. Fear‘s protagonist, Stephen Neale, has just been released from an asylum, and during his dangerous journey he encounters the absurd (mistakenly winning an ill-fated cake), the impossible (an assailant is blown up by a freak bomb dropped by a Nazi sortie), and the sinister (a run-in with a Nazi “tailor” rocking the largest pair of scissors I’ve ever seen). Murdoch’s varied obstacles are similar in type, if not form, and both he and Neale must rely on wits and dream logic. The intense need for his wallet springs the Automat trap, sheer reflex keeps him one step ahead of the malevolent Strangers, and everyone can probably relate to Murdoch’s encounter with the ever growing staircase. Both begin in places of extreme weakness, and both rely on their growing ingenuity (and luck) to carry them through. Oh yes, and then there are clocks: Ministry of Fear and Dark City are both drowning in them.

There has been some concern voiced about Dark City‘s certification. A number of associates I spoke with recently remarked, “but that movie’s not weird.” Necessarily, I disagree. Dark City pulls off the difficult hat-trick of being good enough—and, ultimately, broadly appealing enough—to obscure its inherent “weirdness” with its sheer high quality. There was a telling bit in one of the home video documentaries accompanying the movie. David Goyer, one of the screenwriters, was charged with the unenviable task of squaring off against the MPAA board when they were given the first cut of the movie. The board members wanted to give an R-rating instead of the PG-13 rating Proyas and company sought. Goyer kept demanding “why?”, and the board was unable to give specific examples, saying only that it was “so weird.” (Once the “R” had been slapped on, Proyas felt free to put in some scenes worthy of the rating.) Weirdness is in the eye of the beholder, but obviously this movie addled mainstream America’s brain: 11-week-old Titanic clobbered Dark City on the first week of its release, the MPAA recoiled at its eccentricity, and a certain Amazon customer was hardly alone with his one-star review that described it as “Too weird a movie for me. Waste of money.” Dark City-–with its glorious dream-pastiche, its creepy-go-charming antagonists, its death-candy-colored palette—well deserves its place among the ranks of the 366.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Unfortunately, the structural impression is that of a plot grid more than of a deepening story, and the principal impression of the characters, including the lead, is one of thorough weirdness rather than anything truly comprehensible.”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)

“…a great visionary achievement, a film so original and exciting, it stirred my imagination like ‘Metropolis’ and ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’…  a glorious marriage of existential dread and slam-bang action.” –Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

“Alex Proyas’ noisy psychedelic movie nightmare, ‘Dark City’ is so relentlessly trippy in a fun-house sort of way that it could very easily inspire a daredevil cult of moviegoers who go back again and again to experience its mind-bending twists and turns.” –Stephen Holden, New York Times (contemporaneous)

IMDB LINK: Dark City (1998)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

VISIONS OF STRANGERS DANCE IN HIS HEAD – Interview with Alex Proyas for Spliced Wire

20 Years Later, ‘Dark City’ Remains One of the Smartest Sci-Fi Films Ever Made – Appreciation by Meredith Borders of Slashfilm, with background info and philosophical reflections

Dark City – This entry at a film noir fansite is incomplete, but includes a neat chart explaining similarities between the movie and Daniel Schreber’s “Memoirs of My Nervous Illness”

Dark City (Film ) – TV Tropes’ Dark City page

Dark City vs The Matrix – Comparison of the similarities of the two films (concluding that Dark City was superior)

Dark City Movie Review & Film Summary (1998) – Roger Ebert’s essay on the film for his “Great Movies” series

LIST CANDIDATE: DARK CITY (1998) – s original review of Dark City for this site

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Memoirs of My Nervous Illness – Daniel Schreber’s classic schizophrenia memoir was one of the major influences on the film

HOME VIDEO INFODark City was far luckier in home distribution than it was theatrically, being the subject of two impressive video releases approximately ten years apart. Back in 1998 (or so), New Line Home Video released what was at that time a very premium edition of the movie on DVD (buy), particularly considering the tepid critical and audience reception of the theatrical release just six months earlier. The DVD had commentaries (from the director as well as Roger Ebert, a big booster), some essays, and most intriguingly, a little in-menu game that rewarded the dedicated investigator with a pleasantly bizarre piece of animation as a reward for finding “Shell Beach”.

In 2008, at the behest of an increasingly vocal fan-base, New Line allowed Alex Proyas to whip up a “Director’s Cut” that allowed him to bring the movie closer in line to his original, more ambiguous vision (buy). The new cut’s main change consisted of dropping the explanatory voice-over the Hollywood suits demanded for the theatrical release. This change allows the viewer (or, at least, the fresh viewer) to learn things alongside the protagonist. Additionally, various scenes were expanded to make for a richer experience. The 2008 Blu-ray release (buy) has both versions, each with their own commentaries, essays, and a block of documentaries put together for the re-release.

Now, until doing some research about this the other day, I had no idea there was any controversy concerning the picture transfer. I re-watched the movie recently on my plasma-screen television and to me it looked just swell. I learned that, to some, New Line committed the unforgivable sin of “edge enhancement and application of digital noise reduction.” Either my vision or my electronics are inadequate to the point of me not having noticed anything amiss, but to those who might be bothered by this: you have been warned. More to the point, the 2008 Director’s Cut release is going to be the best you can hope for anyway.

Dark City is also found bundled in a couple of bargain DVD collections: on a “Post-apocalypse” 4-movie set with I Am Legend, Logan’s Run, and The Omega Man (buy), and on another double feature set paired with Cloverfield (buy).

And in all forms it’s available cheap! Even the Blu-ray disc costs under ten bucks at your friendly neighborhood Amazon site, or if you hate physical copies of media, you can “own” or rent it digitally for around the same price (buy on demand). The packaging for the solid-form copy is a little underwhelming, but heck—not all your discs’ boxes can be art-jobs. Snap it up. You won’t be disappointed.

One thought on “331. DARK CITY (1998)”

  1. My first reflexive response is, “Are you kidding me?” How can this movie be on the same list as The Hourglass Sanatorium, The Holy Mountain, Possession and Eraserhead? This is just a conventional science fiction flick. It’s a good flick, I’ve liked it ever since I first saw it in the theater, watched it several times since, but it’s not truly weird.

    However, the write up is quite good. I like the anecdote about the producers’ frustrating efforts to secure a PG-13 rating, which were rebuffed for no rational reason, except that the squares on the MPAA board thought the movie was “too weird”. The Fritz Lang influence was spelled out quite nicely. That The Matrix is a kind of rip off of Dark City may not be the most original observation, but it is solidly backed up by pointing out that The Matrix actually utilized some of the sets that were constructed for Dark City (a fact that I was unaware of). I also enjoyed the author’s characterization of the film’s visual design: ” its death-candy-colored palette”, “Washed in the color scheme of an Edward Hopper painting gone sour”.

    I cannot really object to the inclusion of this movie on your list on any rational basis; I feel that it’s “not weird” in the same undefinable and subjective way that those MPAA dorks thought that it was “too weird”. But maybe the reason I feel that way is because it was so influential, and because it’s “death-candy” color scheme became the dominant visual cliche of science fiction flicks in that era. It’s interesting how a movie that got clobbered at the box office can still be so influential. I remember how bored I was with the whole “jumble-Noir cityscape” thing when The Thirteenth Floor came out, and that was only 1999.

    I will suggest that if you guys are including mainstream fare like Dark City, then you ought to take a second look at Apocalypse Now. It’s an exceptional movie, a masterpiece actually, and it contains some truly weird sequences. It would fit well with other weird movies by mainstream directors, like Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

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