Sunday, September 13, 2015

Dark City (1998)


Director: Alex Proyas
Writer: Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs, David S. Goyer
DP: Dariusz Wolski
Editor: Dov Hoenig
Score: Trevor Jones
Producer: Alex Proyas, Andrew Mason
Starring: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Richard O'Brien
Distribution: New Line Cinema
Length: 1 hr. 51 min.

Dark City blends the genres of science fiction and film noir.  This is a fairly common mix, for obvious reasons; films noir are designed to breed paranoia, and science fiction films extrapolate from the present to provide us with a vision of the future.  The combination is often used to make a social statement; many filmmakers have crafted cautionary tales by suggesting that the harsh darkness of film noir awaits us in our potential future.  But Dark City is not a cautionary tale. Rather, it's a optimistic story, a study of the power and purpose of human imagination; the social commentary it contains refers to the conflict between the ability to imagine and inhuman forces attempting to package the world into something simple and comprehensible.

It's difficult to talk about Dark City because its narrative makes such heavy use of mystery, like a film noir might.  The main character is John Murdoch, played by Rufus Sewell, a man who wakes up in a bathtub at the beginning of the film with no memories.  He knows nothing of his identity, but figures out that he's suspected of several murders and is being pursued by police.  Soon, he realizes that he is not only being followed by the police, but by a group of pale men in dark coats called "the Strangers" who have supernatural powers.  He finds that he too has these powers, though he doesn't know how to control them. An enigmatic doctor played by Kiefer Sutherland seeks him out and promises to explain everything, but Murdoch is uncertain whether the doctor can be trusted.

The police officers investigating Murdoch are led by Inspector Frank Bumstead, played by William Hurt.  He starts to see inconsistencies in the case, and strange symbols that match the scribblings of another officer who had been having delusions and eventually committed suicide.  We notice that Bumstead isn't exactly the ideal police officer; he complains "no one ever listens to me," and he seems altogether too credulous when speaking to persons of interest.  Eventually, he joins Murdoch in search of Shell Beach, a place Murdoch vaguely remembers but doesn't know why.

There's a comparison made between the Strangers and ordinary humans in Dark City.  Though each of the Strangers has some measure of individuality, they all think collectively, behaving less as independent consciousnesses than as differently functioning units in a collective mind.  There is no distrust or opacity of communication between them.  Meanwhile, the humans in the film are suspicious, confused, desperate, and paranoid.  Almost every scene that doesn't involve ordinary humans fleeing from the Strangers involves someone interrogating another person, trying to earn their trust, or trying to convince them of something.  Even in brief scenes featuring only nameless, inconsequential characters talking about their day, they bring up some conflict they had with someone else.

Though film noir is often associated with threatening angular structures (of which Dark City has no shortage), Dark City is also concerned with curved lines and circles.  Curved roads, circular rooms, enormous clocks, inscribed spirals, even the city itself is circular.  The camera moves in as close as possible to capture the spinning motion of the Strangers' mysterious tools.  Entire buildings rotate under the Strangers' power.  The humans in the city are trapped in a ruthless cycle; no matter what steps they take, the influence of supernatural beings puts them right back where they started.

The film opens with a shot of the night sky, replete with stars, but we don't see those stars again until well over an hour into the film.  In fact, we see no natural light at all, and all the artificial light in the film is colored either a sickly yellow or an unnerving, pallid blue.  It's oppressive to watch; the film is called Dark City and lives up to that title probably as well as any film could.

All this interpersonal friction, narrative opacity, and eye-straining dimness portrays humanity in a state of perpetual disorder, forever limited by their inability to know exactly what another person is thinking.  But Dark City suggests the human imagination is a built-in device to compensate for this. We cannot know what forces control us, or what another person is thinking, but we can imagine it. Whatever we imagine is not necessarily the truth, but it prevents us from being frozen in place, stuck in the Strangers' cruel cycle.  The humans in Dark City pursue Shell Beach even though they have no tangible reason to believe it has the answers they want; to be motivated, they only need the idea of Shell Beach and the ability to imagine a place outside the city.

The arc of Dark City's narrative and aesthetic is that the paranoia of film noir gives way to the constructive imagination of science fiction. The film is very forward about its genre concerns, and it doesn't make any attempt to hide what it takes from its many, many influences; it borrows images almost shot-for-shot from Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira, Terry Gilliam's Brazil, Edward Hopper, and, perhaps most importantly, Fritz Lang. You could argue that influences from Alien and Blade Runner are also present, though less obvious.

There are things not to love about Dark City. The performances will be overbearing to some, and others will be put off by the artificiality of how it all looks (though still others would argue that this is not inappropriate). But it's a remarkably entertaining spectacle, and one that's had a fair enough amount of influence.

It's vital that viewers of Dark City watch the Director's Cut, not the theatrical cut, as the opening narration of the theatrical cut damages the film severely.


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