DARK CITY (1998); DIRECTOR’S CUT (2008)
Rufus Sewell as John Murdoch
William Hurt as Inspector Frank Bumstead
Kiefer Sutherland as Dr. Daniel P. Schreber
Jennifer Connelly as Emma Murdoch
Colin Friels as Detective Eddie Walenski
Directed by Alex Proyas
What makes us human?
That is the question which animates this imaginative movie rich with homages to Metropolis (1927), 1940s film noir classics, and German expressionistic silent films. Watch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) then Dark City, and notice certain stylistic similarities.
Let us begin.
Dark City is set in a perpetually sunless city replete with anachronisms. People dress and speak like characters out of 1940s movies yet automotive and architectural styles span several decades. Something is amiss here, and almost no human characters grasp this fact. Instead they go their daily lives as if under outside control, which they are.
The puppet masters are the Strangers, parasitic aliens who inhabit human corpses, which look really creepy. The Strangers have one goal in mind: to discover what makes humans tick, and therefore to learn this lesson and save their dying species. The Strangers have the power to “tune,” or alter physical reality with their minds, and to change the identities of the captive people by implanting memories whenever they want. This plan depends on the humans remaining oblivious to reality, however.
Detective Eddie Walenski has discovered some of the truth. He knows that there is no way out of the city, and that the woman everyone thinks is his wife no not really his wife; he does not know who she is, or, for that matter, who he is. These facts cause him great emotional distress, and most other people consider him to be crazy.
Dr. Daniel P. Schreber, Psychiatrist, knows what is going on, for he is the Strangers’ accomplice. Yet Schreber is uncomfortable with the aliens. His character is pivotal in the movie.
Our hero, however, is John Murdoch. He wakes up in a bathtub, uncertain about who he is or why there is a dead woman lying on the floor. Yet Murdoch does not have the soul of a murderer, for he takes the time to save the life of a fish. Murdoch has woken up before the Strangers could complete their reprogramming of him as a serial killer of prostitutes. Schreber, who is somewhat on the side of the humans, calls Murdoch to tell him to flee while he can. So Murdoch gets out just in time to evade the Strangers.
John Murdoch finds his wife, Emma, who recalls that she has not seen him since an argument three weeks ago. She expresses regret over an extramarital affair. None of this happened, of course, for these are fabricated memories.
Emma Murdoch, as a character, begins with little depth, for she exists (as a personality) only because the Strangers created her recently. The same statement is true of Inspector Frank Bumstead, pictured below:
As Bumstead investigates the murders of prostitutes (Did the murders really happen?, the audience wonders.), he begins to notice the artificiality of the city and the superficiality of his memories. So he teams up with Murdoch and Schreber to uncover the truth.
Murdoch has “childhood” memories of an idyllic, happy, and sunny place called Shell Beach. But neither he nor anyone else can recall how to get there. The search for Shell Beach propels the action of the movie. Along the way, Murdoch and Bumstead learn far more than they thought possible.
John Murdoch has developed the power to tune, so he has become a rival to the Strangers. So, of course, he is one of two humans (the other one being Dr. Schreber) who watches the daily retuning of the city, along with buildings arising out of the ground.
I do not want to reveal too much here, for a satisfactory first-time viewing of Dark City depends on not knowing everything. So I leave much to the imagination.
Consider these questions: What makes us human? What makes who we are as individuals, if not our memories? And if our memories change, do we become different people too? In other words, what defines the human soul? Dark City explores these issues intelligently.
Roger Ebert has heaped praise upon this movie and recorded commentary tracks for the original and director’s cut releases. Watching Dark City without a commentary track is a rewarding artistic experience, but viewing it while listening to Ebert (who no longer has that voice, of course) is informative. He comments on camera angles, movie pacing, and other details only an expert film reviewer would notice.
To watch Dark City is to spend time well. I invite you, O reader, to do this many times.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
NOVEMBER 20, 2010 COMMON ERA
All images are screen captures I obtained via the Power DVD technology installed on my computer.