Sunday, November 18, 2012

Dark City

Dark City (1998), directed by Alex Proyas (of The Crow and Knowing fame), was a rare treat for me. By the time I watch a given movie, I've usually been exposed to all sorts of trailers, commercials, clips, and reviews for it, but that was not the case for Dark City. I don't remember how, but I managed to hear how good the movie was without knowing a single thing about it except it was sci-fi and presumably set in a dark city. What a joy it was to discover this movie, to not know where it was going, and to genuinely be surprised by the plot developments and wowed by impressive special effects. Be warned, it might best for anyone who has not seen it to do so first before reading this post because I am going to discuss spoilers (I was also lucky to see the director's cut. The theatrical version opens with unnecessary narration that spells out everything).

John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakens in a hotel bath tub with no memory of who he is, a strange syringe on the floor, and a dead woman in the next room. A call from a nervous man claiming to be a doctor (Kiefer Sutherland) warns him to get out of there, which he does, just as a menacing group of tall, pale men arrive on the scene. A detective (William Hurt) believes Murdoch to be the serial killer butchering prostitutes in their nameless city, although Murdoch's wife Emma, a singer (Jennifer Connelly), refuses to believe the man she loves is a murderer. Meanwhile, beneath the city, its true leaders plot to stop Murdoch before he can interfere with their plans.

On the surface, Dark City appears to be a traditional film noir. Everyone drives classic automobiles, the men wear fedoras and trench coats, the architecture and clothing seem lifted directly from the 1940s, and the characters constantly drink and smoke so the air feels saturated with vice. Proyas films the movie so that everything feels just a little distorted and off-kilter. The world of film noir is just a little darker, a little shadier, and it should be; one character points he can't remember the last time he saw the sun.

That little fact, along with other things, should alert viewers that things aren't all what they seem. The group targeting Murdoch, the Strangers as they come to be known as, aren't human. Tall, thin, pale, bald, they use the bodies of human dead and possess psychic abilities that enable them to manipulate time, space, and matter. They have collected human specimens, stolen their memories, and use them to experiment and study what it means to have a soul.

The question of what it means to be human has driven many a science fiction parable, including Metropolis and Blade Runner, movies that Dark City has been clearly inspired by visually and thematically. What is it that makes us human? Dark City offers a number of answers: our free will, our ability to love, and the collective and individual experiences that make up our memories. The Strangers, who share a group mindset, look, and thought, mix and match memories with different people to see how they behave, and it's no surprise the one man who proves to be a threat to them is the one who consciously and subconsciously is able to assert his own will and refuse the role assigned to him.

The special effects are top-notch. Doors appear in walls, entire buildings are grown and shifted in place, and a number of characters fly. Unlike The Matrix, which came out a year later, Dark City has very few action scenes and shootouts, but it generates vast, unforgettable, and dark imagery: the subterranean chamber of the Strangers, the sight of the entire city "shut down" as the Strangers do their work transporting memories, the vast, imposing cityscape that dominates the screen, and what the characters eventually discover lies beyond the walls of the city.

One of the recurring images of Dark City is the spiral.The dead victims has them carved on their bodies, and another police detective obsessively draws them after learning the truth about the city. Spirals have often been used in movies to denote insanity and paranoia among those who feel trapped; similarly, the path of a spiral remains fixed, so that no matter how many turns one makes, he or she always ends up at the same point. The Strangers, in their quest to understand humans, try to chart their destinies, not knowing that it humanity's ability to choose, to jump off the predetermined path, that makes it unique.

1 comment:

  1. I definitely liked this movie a lot because I never heard of it when I saw it. I didn't see any commercials for it. I think movies in general are kind of ruined that way. I was disappointed with Inglorious Basterds. It was a good movie, but the previews had me expected a completely different movie.