Fright Fest 2019: Dark City (1998)
Dark City is a film that manages to get just a little more complex and interesting with each time I watch it. It’s one of the more unique and engaging sci-fi films to come out of my early adult years and is one that I am happy to have had the chance to enjoy.
The premise of the film is one that has been done in some form again and again over the years. A man (John Murdoch) wakes up in a bathtub with no memory of who he is or how he got there. There is a dead body in the room and he has blood on him. Everything that follows is a gradual unraveling of this mystery we have been presented with. And as with any mystery, the key is obviously how well done and satisfying the payoff is at the end. Do we walk away satisfied or disappointed?
The idea behind the film is that a giant experiment is taking place, with some kind of species holding mankind hostage. Each night, they cause things in the world to come crashing to a halt and in this seemingly infinite length of unaware inactivity, they begin changing things. Buildings sprout up that weren’t there before. People are moved around like chess pieces, to different houses and different families. A poor couple discussing their day over dinner may blink away and come back to consciousness now in an opulent home, having the same conversation but now in the lifestyle of the rich. How people react to these changes is what our overseers are most interested in, evidently.
Some may feel the urge to compare this to The Matrix and while I can see a connection on a superficial level, it really is comparing apples and oranges. Dark City may have the basic notion of people leading false lives, against their will and without their knowledge, but the concept is so much more rich and interesting than just that.
As Murdoch proves immune to the technology of these aliens, we are left to watch him stumbling about the landscape, trying to remember his past in a world of people who can’t remember anything. I felt the tragic notes of the story much more acutely this time around. That I find myself as well at a point in my life where all I want to do is seek out and take hold of all the things that are now behind me.
William Hurt has grown to become one of my all time favorite actors. He just has this soft-spoken ability to fully inhabit the skin of a character and bring them to life in a way many are unable to. In this film, we see him as a police detective, trying futilely to solve a series of homicides, which John Murdoch might be guilty of, clearly having only a limited picture of what is happening in the city around him. He’s also trying to unravel the crazed rantings of his former partner, trying in vain to get a grip on the mindset of someone who has no grip on anything. He can sense that something is wrong in the city. But how can you explore an answer when you don’t yet really have a question? In a way, he is searching for deeper answers on an unconscious level, just as much as John Murdoch is consciously seeking them out.
There’s this odd contrast. Visually, the movie is stunning to watch. All the beautiful city skylines and landscapes and the fact that nearly the entire movie is at night makes it feel almost like a black and white picture. But the lighting and visuals and performances from the cast also lends an incredible melancholy feel. You find yourself observing these people trying to live out their lives, but who are unable to do so, as they end each day being reset by some higher power they are unaware of and don’t understand. They have no concept of what is happening to them and instead seem to exist in this perpetual fog of a semi-depressive state, as the same scenes in their lives are played out, again and again.
One of the most poignant moments in the film for me was when Murdoch tracks down his uncle, who raised him from a child. One question Murdoch seems obsessed with is in finding out how to get to Shell Beach. He is overloaded with memories of a childhood there but despite seeming to know what Shell Beach is, no one he asks is able to tall him how to actually get there. His uncle tries to help Murdoch with his memory issues by showing him some slides from his childhood. But when Murdoch starts to ask his uncle some basic questions, everything just falls apart.
He tries to get at his uncle’s specific memories but finds that those specifics have been long since replaced by generalities, like an intricate ink sketch had been replaced with a basic painting of broad brush strokes. For me, it was a poignant metaphor for getting older, something I think I appreciate more than I did when I was twenty. Our pasts are robbed from us, a little more each day. The person I was twenty years ago has essentially ceased to exist and there’s nothing I can do to bring him back. It was this feeling that struck me most acutely as I re-watched Dark City. Every day, the people of this city are robbed of their lives, wiped clean and then shoved back into those lives, still having to function as if nothing had happened. And while on a conscious level, nobody seems aware of their experiences, it seems like behind the vacant gazes of so many characters, they’re all somehow existentially aware of everything they are going through. And the tragedy of this is brought into full form under the constant blanket of cold, dark skies.
Dark City is a special film, full of phenomenal performances. This is one of my favorite pre-Jack Bauer roles from Kiefer Sutherland. I’ve already mentioned William Hurt. Rufus Sewell is spot on as the lead role and the criminally under-recognized Jennifer Connelly puts in a phenomenal performance. And yes, the portrayal of the aliens can be a little on the cheesy side, especially with their names like Mr. Book or Mr. Hand, Mr. Wall and so forth. But the costume and makeup of the creatures was so well done that I’m willing to overlook that aspect.
So many movies anymore are entertaining but they don’t stay with you. There has been a certain amount of drama recently over remarks Martin Scorcese made about not liking superhero films. And while I do find the Marvel movies entertaining, I have to admit that I don’t think he’s wrong. I go to an Avengers film, have a great time and then barely ever think about the movie again after leaving the theater. I rarely have any desire to watch them again. With movies like Dark City, I find it gets into my head. And despite having seen it again and again, I can still find reasons to enjoy it, even though it’s the fifth or sixth time I’ve seen it. It’s a style of movie-making that I wish would become more financially viable anymore. Let movies become the landscapes of dreams again and not just plugging in a basic visual formula.
But I digress.
Dark City for me is a story about a man trying to find himself in a society where there is nothing left to be found. It’s about how powerful our innate drive to discover truth can be, no matter how heavily it might be shrouded and inaccessible to us. It’s a reminder that we might be lost to each other, we might be lost to ourselves, but sometimes there still remains that tiniest of tethers, that cord of truth and experience that can return us to what once was. We just need to learn how to operate the mechanisms within ourselves.
To find our own Shell Beach.
Who knows who might be waiting for you there?
Chad A. Clark is an author of dark-leaning fiction, born and raised in the middle of the United States. His road began in Illinois, along the banks of the Mississippi and from there he moved to Iowa, where he has lived ever since. From an early age, he was brined in the glory that is science fiction and horror, from the fantastical of George Lucas, Gene Roddenberry and Steven Spielberg to the dark and gritty tales of Stephen King and George Romero. The way from there to here has been littered with no shortage of books and movies, all of which have and continue to inform his narrative style to this day. Chad has written horror, science fiction and non-fiction. He has been published by Crystal Lake Publishing, Dark Minds Press, Shadow Work Publishing, Sirens Call Publications and EyeCue Productions and his books have received critical praise from the Ginger Nuts of Horror, Ink Heist, Confessions of a Reviewer, Horror DNA and This is Horror. For more information on his literary universe, check out his official website or take a peek at his Amazon author page