“Nothing like a little healthy paranoia”
Some films are doomed to obscurity, just like the citizens in Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998). Subject to the circumstantial time and space axiom, the American-Australian co-production sank beneath the weight of James Cameron’s Titanic that year, despite gaining critical acclaim. A year later, The Matrix overshadowed it even more, as it snatched the limelight with its Hollywood structure, kung fu blended aesthetics and thematic conceptualisation. However, Dark City survives to date as an astonishingly underrated film for its prolific design, mind-bending themes, and solid performances.
John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakens to find himself in an unknown hotel room with a woman’s dead body lying nearby. A strange phone call from the neurotic Dr Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) warns him of the men coming to kill him. And so, John flees, not only hoping to escape the danger, but also find out why he cannot remember anything at all. Apart from the murderous Strangers on his trail, Murdoch is also the prime suspect of a series of murders being investigated by Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt). While on the run, Murdoch discovers answers in the darkness of the city that go beyond his personal trials and fears.
Drawing clear inspiration from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), as well as Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children (1995), Proya’s project examines the power of the human mind in shaping and comprehending reality. The neo-noir sci-fi feeds on colourlessness and a series of philosophical concepts about the realm of allegorical perceptions. These aim to initially confuse us, but ultimately urge us to ponder the essence of memories, dormant consciousness and human nature. Clearly based on Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave“, the city feels like a Kafkaesque nightmare, set against the backdrop of Blade Runner’s, or George Orwell’s, futuristic behavioural control.
Prior to Dark City, Proyas was behind making another gothic film, The Crow (1994), elements of which can also be seen here, especially in the cinematography and music scores. Set in a dark ominous version of Gotham City, where the few colours used are shades of dark green and purple, Proyas has created a nightmarish background with an almost comic storyboard framing. The enormous buildings and special effects add to a feeling of supernatural horror, with memories being wiped out and restored in a way that employs untameable forces to distort individuality.
Dark rulers of the mind experiment on humans by presenting a 3D reality that offers no escape. This is the stepping stone for Proyas in developing his own take on Plato’s allegory of the cave, even though the end result fails to provide meaningful, philosophical closure. This is partly due to his longing to please the ego in stating that this “revelation and awakening” could happen to anyone, and not just the chosen one.
Leading star Rufus Sewell, mostly known for playing villains, masterfully captures the feeling of constant doubt as a man owning nothing, not even his memories. Richard O’ Brien as Mr. Hand is a sight to behold with his demented looks, twisted reasoning and captivating aura, while William Hurt splendidly carries himself around the weight of solemn emotions and controlled expression. Jennifer Connelly remains mostly – and regrettably – in the shadows, while Kiefer Sutherland turns into a caricature as the paranoid doctor aiding the protagonist.
Moreover, the appearance of the Strangers is seems to be based on the character of Riff Raff in Richard O’Brien’s musical stage show The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1973). Their pale faces and futuristic machinery add to the vagueness of their names, Mr. Hand and Mr. Book, presenting an alien form trying to decode human behaviour through ongoing experimentation. What really stands out, however, is the city itself for its maze structure, incorporating elements from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s – thus making the time parametre impossible to define. CGI is perfectly used to reveal the nature and size of this human trap, while Richard Hobbs and Michelle McGahey’s art direction blends seamlessly with Dariusz Wolksi’s bruised cinematography.
Towards the end, Dark City seems to momentarily stagger beneath the weight of its own philosophical pillars. The dark finale would have been exquisite, if only the film’s mind-altering calls had not been abandoned abruptly for a simplistic, cliché explanation of love being the supreme quality forming one’s identity. This sudden urge to settle for a standard explanation of the dualism of human nature fails to come across as anything other than a flimsy attempt at placating distressed viewers. By extension, our journey down the rabbit hole of our existence is cut short.
In any case, Dark City is a film guaranteed to inspire and provoke existential questions in its audience, as it presents a series of ideas and topics that led to the conception of many films throughout the years, including Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) and Memento (2000). In 2008, Proyas released his Director’s Cut, which erased the nonsensical voiceover introduction that so blatantly spoiled the theatrical release. Rest assured that your time spent in the dark will not be in vain.
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