Today I watched Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998)
John Murdoch awakes in a bathtub in a strange, anachronistic city perpetually shrouded in night. Murdoch doesn’t remember who he is or where he comes from, the clues seem to point to him being a serial killer, but he cannot comprehend doing these murderous things. Meanwhile Frank Bumstead, a detective on the trail of the Murdoch murders, begins to uncover a similar mystery to the one surrounding Murdoch’s life. This city that they both live in, their memories, their experiences, there is something false about them. Strange black clad and bald men seem to haunt the city and are after Murdoch who exhibits strange, reality altering power just like they do, perhaps in this lies a key to the whole puzzle of existence in this maze-like metropolis.
Taking stylistic cues from sources as varied as noir detective stories to surreal and dystopian literature. While the style is deep in allegory, it also stands on it’s own as a purely creative vision. The thematic crux of the movie being a question of what it is to be human, beneath the veneer of life experiences and all that. Murdoch’s missing memories are a key element to this theme, his character study becomes a study of the soul that remains even when identity is lost.
These themes largely come across in the performances from the magnificent cast. Rufus Sewell, a remarkably underrated actor whose intensity sees him largely mitigated to villain roles, portrays Murdoch brilliantly. His performance is complex beyond the dialogue in the script, coming alive with Sewell’s remarkable skill. William Hurt plays Bumstead and finds himself uniquely well suited to this old school noir character archetype, quiet moodiness fits his delivery style well. Jennifer Connelly makes a strong appearance as Murdoch’s ‘wife’ and helps inform this movie’s conclusion on human spirit and it’s connection to love. Finally Keifer Sutherland delivers one of his most transformative performances as Dr. Schreber, a far cry from his famous turn as a badass agent on T.V. This character is constantly out of breath, twitchy, and haunted.
To continue talking about the themes of this work, I will have to get to some heavy spoilers, so skip this paragraph if you have yet to see it. It has been noted before that this film can be seen as a retelling of Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which prisoners in a cave only face the back wall of said cave, never realizing that behind them lies the outside world. In this film’s cave, the titular city, there is no outside, outside is instead knowledge of the reality of the situation, which I suppose is the meaning of the allegory in the first place. Like in Plato’s version, someone, Murdoch, turns around and sees reality for what it is, in this film’s case, reality is an alien experiment trying to uncover the secret to our individuality. Which raises a problem for me in the sci-fi elements of this premise being remarkably human-centric, we are portrayed as this special species who have some intangible goodness that other aliens lack and need to survive.
Aside from this, the film holds up extremely well, and it’s meditations about identity and individualism are remarkably thought provoking. The film ends in a bizarre note, becoming something of a superhero movie briefly, ironic considering David S. Goyer’s work on the screenplay. This film is a wonderfully original piece of moody neo-noir with a healthy dose of surreal sci-fi thrown in for good measure. It is entertaining as a pure plot driven experience, but then it can continue to engage with it’s use of philosophy in the smart character drama. The film flows from horrific concepts of mind alteration to exciting chases and brilliant displays of creative visual design with remarkable fluidity, all coming together in a remarkably satisfying whole. 5/5