In the latter years of the 1990s, there was a clever science fiction movie where the protagonist discovers his life is an illusion. He is not a master of his destiny, and there is an unfathomable meaning behind daily existence. As he learns more about what is behind the walls of his universe, he stumbles onto the discovery that he has the power to break free and destroy those binding him. It tells this story in a visually stunning way which is unforgettable to those who have seen it. This film is, of course, Dark City.
Thought it was The Matrix? That is understandable since it fits the description and is correctly remembered as one of the best films of that period. Although ‘bullet-time’ is now copied by every bad action schlock, we should not forget how thrilling it was initially. With two terrible sequels (does someone have a blue pill handy so we can forget?), many have retrospectively downgraded the first in the trilogy, but that is unfair. Each work must be judged on its own merit and The Matrix still deserves praise.
But it’s Dark City I wish to discuss, specifically the directors cut which is superior to the theatrical release. The original version shown in theatres gives away much of the mystery in the initial couple of minutes. It turns out, after first showings, New Line Cinema wasn’t sure if the audience would understand what was happening and demanded a narration.
But before you expect a confusing David Lynch style film like Lost Highway, there is no need to be concerned. Dark City has a perfectly understandable plot and the mystery is revealed logically and fully at the proper time. Directed by Alex Proyas of The Crow fame who went on to direct I Robot, and starring Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connolly, Richard O’Brien, Ian Richardson and William Hurt, we have plenty of acting talent on show as we enter a dark, nightmarish arena.
Even if you don’t care about great cinematography, art direction, or any deeper questions – which this film has in abundance – that is fine. Much of the fun is the simple, popcorn-munching pleasure of entering a new self-contained world. On first viewing I liked Dark City, but thought nothing more of it. But for days afterwards, images and scenes came flashing into my head. So I delved back in again, and again, and found myself discovering more each time. We all know films which have to be seen more than once to be really appreciated. It’s as if we need to be familiar with the strange and uncomfortable surroundings before we can truly see them.
Where The Matrix asks what is real, Dark City goes further and asks: who am I if nothing is real, not even my memories? At midnight, any one of the city inhabitants can be given new memories and a new life from the pale and weird Strangers. Few inhabitants ever notice the changes and those that do usually turn to madness or disappear. But our main protagonist, John Murdoch, is different. He suddenly awakes after midnight with no memory. The only clues to what kind of man he is leads him to believe he’s a serial killer. But where others have crumbled, John Murdoch becomes more powerful than he can possibly have imagined. And the Strangers know it.
If you are wondering why I am being frustratingly coy on the plot, it’s because I don’t want to ruin it for you. If spoilers have a time limit, then something released sixteen years ago has probably exceeded it. Yet, if I do give out too much information much of the pleasure of the film for those who read this and decide to watch it, would be reduced. Although it has plenty of similarities to The Matrix (which actually used Dark City sets) or The Thirteenth Floor, it has its own unique ideas and plot. If you have watched it before, give it another try. If you haven’t, then pick a relaxed, dark room and venture into a feverish dream world that is both frightening and beautiful.
The late Roger Ebert said, “I believe more than ever that Dark City is one of the great modern films.” If you don’t care what I think, then at least listen to him. And remember, watch the directors cut!