Dark City (dir. Alex Proyas): thought-provoking ideas and issues trapped in a prison

Alex Proyas, “Dark City” (1998)

An attractive film that combines elements of film noir, mystery, science fiction and (regrettably) action thriller, “Dark City” is a quest into the role that memories play in shaping people’s identities and individualities with a darker message about how a person’s memories – and his or her identity as a result – can be changed and moulded by others pursuing a secret agenda. This sinister message can apply to whole communities and societies as well with the result that even a country might exist only on the basis of lies and myths concocted by an elite group and believed by the country’s entire population.

The film is upfront about the nature of its nameless Dark City in the opening voice-over narrative supplied by an important character, Dr Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland): a group of aliens known as the Strangers, whose original world and civilisation are destroyed, and who themselves are on the verge of dying out, nab a whole bunch of people from Earth – how many isn’t said – and pop them into a floating prison space-ship reconstructed in the style of American cities as they might have appeared in mystery or crime thriller movies of the 1940’s. The purpose is to study the humans in order to find out what makes them “individual” and to use that knowledge to save the Strangers from extinction. Quite how the Strangers found out about human civilisation and how they conducted their research – they must have plundered film libraries throughout the world for information on how to build cities – isn’t explained but they end up producing a claustrophobic and grim brutalist metropolis with some Art Deco and German Expressionist flourishes that is a homage to Fritz Lang’s famous dystopian flick “Metropolis”. Into this world is “born” a man (Rufus Sewell) in a bath-tub full of water: he wakes up and realises he has no name, not many childhood memories and certainly no idea as to why the woman in the room outside the bathroom should be a bloodied mess with knife wounds all over and weird spirals painted in red on her naked body. He stumbles into some clothes, out of the hotel and into the streets, working out that he’s called John Murdoch and that he spent some time in an idyllic seaside place called Shell Beach. While he’s busy reconstructing who and what he’s supposed to be, others are hunting for him: the police, led by Detective Bumstead (William Hurt), believe him to be the woman’s murderer; and the Strangers together with Dr Schreber want him so they can fix up their botched experiment in creating a serial killer.

Since the Strangers abhor sunlight and moisture, they keep their prison city in perpetual night and allow no rivers or other bodies of water near it. At “midnight” every day, they put all the human inhabitants to sleep and modify the city’s environment and the people in a process called “tuning”: new buildings sprout from the ground like vegies on Viagra and Schreber, allowed to stay awake, goes around injecting individual folks (using alarming-looking heavy-duty syringes) with new identities and memories that he’s cooked up in his laboratory deep underground where the Strangers live. For some lucky humans, upward social mobility is achieved in the space of 15 minutes or roughly the time it takes for a table to morph three times its length. Murdoch discovers that he too can stay awake during the tuning periods and moreover can tune buildings by mind power; he uses this ability to evade the police and the Strangers on several occasions while trying to make his way to Shell Beach. He discovers though that while people “know” the place, they can’t give him the directions. He locates a relative, Uncle Karl (John Bluthal) who happily tells him about his childhood but Murdoch discerns glaring holes in the reminiscences and exposes the stories and the uncle himself as deliberate artificial constructs.

Later surrendering himself to the police, Murdoch meets Bumstead who himself has been troubled about what’s happening in the city and he convinces the detective that there’s something not right about the place. They both track down Schreber and force him to take them to the farthest outskirts of the city in the direction of Shell Beach. The threesome come up against a brick wall (literally) and what they find behind the illusion of Shell Beach confirms Murdoch’s suspicions about the artificial world they live in …

The speedy and straightforward nature of the plot and the ease with which Murdoch deconstructs the nature of everything around him give the film and its concerns an air of superficiality which is unfortunate. Needed are a few lingering bird’s-eye point-of-view shots of the city sprinkled throughout the film to emphasise its alien atmosphere and artificiality and to let people savour its idiosyncratic appearance while thinking about the events they’ve just seen; such moments can also serve to heighten or reduce tension, depending on what point in the plot they appear. Though early shots of the cityscape look moody and glamorous enough, later the city starts to look generic and more prison-like and becomes less of a character than it should be as the film slips into action-thriller mode. The result is that the movie ends up looking like a budget version of “Metropolis” and there’s very little sense of the city as a multi-layered Gothic creature harbouring secrets and conspiracies in its alley-ways, tunnels, labyrinths and stairwells. If a film is going to use CGI processes to create a city, it should go the whole hog and beyond to create something that looks as if it took decades, even centuries, to develop and mature. Seems it’s not only the Strangers who need to learn that surface style is no substitute for substance.

Acting excellence and character development aren’t very important in a film like “Dark City” where everyone bar Schreber is supposed to be one-dimensional and if people show any signs of personality, the Strangers will subject them to a cerebral clean-out. Sewell and Hurt play their parts straight and acquit themselves well though Proyas could have included more close-ups of Sewell’s face; this actor has wide soulful eyes with a clear colour that could reflect the progress his character makes in reconstructing his identity. Jennifer Connelly as Murdoch’s wife Emma has little to do and her part could have been dispensed with entirely. Sutherland plays Schreber as a campy mad scientist: his role as collaborator who switches sides is admittedly a difficult one and perhaps his obsequious little creep is the only way to play a duplicitous character bouncing off Sewell’s straight-man role.

Where the film really slumps is in its last fifteen minutes where Murdoch faces off against the Strangers’ leader (Ian Richardson), again literally, and rocks and bodies get thrown around in a boring pyrotechnics display. A film with some aspirations to being cerebral and concerned with investigating artificiality-versus-reality could do much better and more, and include a scenario where the Strangers and humans agree that truth ultimately trumps lies and they should live together as equals: the strangers would then discover that it’s only by allowing humans the freedom to construct their own identities over time that individuality is achieved. In this way the Strangers discover the remedy to their past mistakes and save themselves from extinction. Instead we end up with a scenario where the dark city could end up living another lie, only this time a lie created by a human with the potential to rule as tyrant. Individuality and memory would be used to prop up the new lie and enforce a new kind of conformity.

It’s a real pity when a movie with its heart in the right place and an ingenious concept investigating memory, identity and the nature and role of artifice gets stuck at a level simply to please what commercial interests perceive to be the lowest common denominator in movie-going audiences and a potentially good, thought-provoking story ends up marooned within.

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