Dark City (1998) – Science Fiction Film Review

Alex Proyas’ sci-fi noir masterpiece broods long and hard on the nature of identity. 

“I think; therefore, I am,” said Rene Descartes, in his attempt to find a basic principal of complete certainty, an unshakable foundation on which to build his philosophy. No matter what else one may doubt about the universe—say, the evidence of our senses, which provides our view of the outside world—one could never doubt the basic fact, “I am; I exist.” Nevertheless, even when one accepts this inescapable conclusion, the question remains: Who am I?
This question of what constitutes the basis of an individual’s identity has long been a part of the horror and science-fiction genres. The horror of Dracula is not so much that he will kill you but that he will turn you into something that is a hideously distorted mirror image of yourself (“Lucy Westenra, but yet how changed,” remarks Dr. Seward in Dracula, upon seeing the woman he loves resurrected as a vampire). The irony Invasion of the Body Snatchers is that it’s not bodies that are being snatched but personalities (identities) minus the component of emotion; and if what you are can be duplicated, then are you really the individual you imagine or only a sum total of certain characteristics? Some films have postulated that identity resides in the brain or mind and that it will continue to exist when transferred into another body (e.g., Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed), even if the results are psychologically disastrous. On the other hand, Roman Polanski’s The Tenant dismisses this idea (“What right has my head to call itself me? What right?”) More recently, films derived form the work of Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner, Total Recall) have postulated that one cannot be sure of one’s own identity when the memories that make up that identity may only be artificial implants.


After the success of The Crow, director Alex Proyas apparently brooded long and hard on this last possibility, giving rise to his magnificent opus, DARK CITY. In the film, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakens in a hotel room with murder victim and no memories to tell him whether or not he in fact committed the murder. Following a trail of clues (a wallet with i.d., etc), he tries to track down his identity. The twist, however, is that the trail he is following is a false one created as part of an experiment. It seems that the Strangers, a race of aliens possessing human bodies, are a dying race searching for the secret of the nature of individual identity (which they do no possess, being of a group mind). Working from the premise that identity resides in memory, they have forced a human doctor (Sutherland) to implant different memories into people, to see whether they will then act according to their new identities. To make sure the experiment works smoothly, the Strangers are also capable of altering the physical world of Dark City to conform to whatever the subjects are injected to believe about themselves.
The Dark City of the title turns out to be no city at all but the Strangers’ self-contained laboratory in space. As a result, there is no sunshine, and the characters are only dimly crawling toward the realization that none of them have recent memories of daylight, only dim childhood recollections from long ago. This big revelation provides for some impressive imagery, making a worthwhile payoff to all the forbidding hints being dropped throughout the narrative, but the real focus is ultimately not on the place but the people, particularly Murdoch.
Murdoch was set up to play the role of murderer. The question was: if he were given memories telling him that he was a killer, would he then go out and commit murder? Although his implants failed to work, there is still plenty of evidence to make him doubt himself, and the excitement of the movie lies in watching him search for answers.
This is also where the film takes a big gambit that ultimately pays off. Starting with an amnesiac character makes it difficult to establish audience identification—it’s hard to relate to a guy when you don’t know who he is, and you can’t know who he is when he himself doesn’t know. The result is that the first half-hour of the film plays out with a certain detached interest, based more on the impressiveness of the production design and cinematography, while Murdoch’s quest engages the intellect more than the emotions. And yet, as the story progresses, the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, and we gradually realize that what we are viewing is not a murky muddle of visuals propping up a weak story but a carefully executed mystery (well, sort of a mystery, considering that the studio-mandated opening narration more or less gives everything away). All the questions do lead to answers, and the answers do make sense within the fantasy framework of the film.
However, the ultimate answer of what constitutes identity cleverly remains defined only by what it is not. In a final scene between Murdoch and Mr. Hand (Richard O’Brien), Murdoch says that the Strangers were looking in the wrong place, the mind. Where they should have been looking remains unsaid, allowing the viewer to fill in his own answer, whether it be the soul or the heart. It’s an excellent moment, with Murdoch facing the Stranger who has taken the implant meant for Murdoch and become the murderer Murdoch was meant to be—like an unwanted doppelganger, Mr. Hand dissipates as Murdoch opens a door and steps into the sunshine. (The scene has an interesting parallel with the conclusion of The Truman Show, wherein Jim Carrey’s Truman asserts his true identity by walking out of a fabricated world through a door that is, in that instance, dark—presumably because it’s not lit by the studio lights that give artificial illumination to Truman’s phony world.)
With DARK CITY, director and co-writer Alex Proyas has put together a worthy follow-up to his debut feature, one that is stylistically consistent with its predecessor while tilling new thematic ground. The story lacks the lowest-common-denominator hook that guaranteed success for The Crow(it’s hard to beat revenge from beyond the grave), but it is ultimately a more thoroughly consistent piece of work. The two best roles go to Sewell and Richard O’Brien (as Mr. Hand), but the rest of the cast do serviceable work with what’s available. Ian Richardson is impressively creepy as the apparent leader of the Strangers; Sutherland manages to make something sympathetic out of his double-crossing doctor; and Connelly makes you believe she could inspire love, no matter what the manufactured details of her alleged past. One only wishes that William Hurt had been given a little more to do; he fits very well into the role of film noir detective, but the focus of the story maintains his character as a fly in the ointment for Murdoch—until both men realize that their roles as cop and criminal have been manufactured for them. Hurt does get one good line: after Mrs. Murdoch ignores his orders and helps her husband escape, Hurt’s detective wonders in frustration, “Why does no one ever listen to me?”
At the finale, Murdoch, who has evolved the Strangers’ power to alter physical reality, changes Dark City to a City of Light and goes out looking for the woman (Connelly) who had the memory of being his ex-wife but now has been given a new identity. The implication is that, no matter what their memories, something intrinsic to these two as human beings will always make them fall in love—a reassuring and very moving thought after nearly 100 minutes of gloom and doom. DARK CITY may not provide profound answers, but it deals seriously with a profound idea, and does it in a way that is cathartic and even uplifting, without being contrived or condescending. As a technical achievement, it is superb, and that technique is put in the service of telling a stylized story that would be difficult to realize any other way. For whatever reason, it may not have found the audience it deserved at the time of its release, but it is nonetheless one of the great achievements of fantastic cinema.

Murdoch's wife (Jennifer Connelly) is menaced by one of the mysterious Strangers (Richard O'Brien)

DARK CITY. New Line, 1/98. Director: Alex Proyas. Writers: Proyas, Lem Dobbs, David S. Goyer. Producers: Alex Proyas, Andrew Mason, Barbara Gibbs; executive producers, Michael De Luca, Brian Witten. Original music composed by Trevor Jones. Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski. Editing: Dov Hoenig. Production design: George Liddle, Patrick Tatopoulos; arti direction, Richard Hobbs, Michelle McGahey. Costume design: Liz Keogh. Rated R. 105 mins. With: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, Richard O’Brien, William Hurt, Ian Richardson, Colin Friels, Bruce Spence.
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