“First there was darkness… then came the Strangers.”
In the shadow of epic 1990’s blockbusters, a now seemingly forgotten neo-noir science-fiction thriller called Dark City was released in February of 1998, long considered one of the quartet of film ‘dump months’ for movies expected to underperform at the box office. Given the release date, it’s no wonder Dark City quickly fell off a sales cliff in its second week and ended up finishing the year barely breaking even.
But one thing that Dark City had going for it was style. The film is a truly unique blend of noir, science fiction and a thin veneer of horror, built around a foundation of artful CGI, real-life modeling and impressive sets. Combined, the effect is one of near instant immersion into a dark, gothic setting that slowly unfolds as the film progresses. Viewers are given details of the moody world at the same pace its protagonist, an amnesic ‘serial-killer’ named John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) slowly learns that the city he lives in is nothing more than an elaborate lie constructed by fedora-wearing psychic alien ‘Strangers‘. Its Plato’s classic Allegory of the Cave whereby John learns the ‘truth’ of his existence through the breaking of his mental ‘chains’. Alongside Sewell, the film includes an excellent cast: the near goddess-like Jennifer Connelly as his love interest and partner-in-discovery, the deviously malevolent Richard O’Brien, Ian Richardson and Bruce Spence as Strangers Mr. Hand, Mr. Book and Mr. Wall (respectively), as well as the beseeching Inspector Burnstead played by William Hurt, all serving to flesh out this ethereal world and aid Murdoch on his quest to uncover the hidden nature of its reality.
This truth delves into more than just the physical space that John inhabits. The real heart of the story is the nature of human identity and freewill. So even though the film ultimately reveals that John and every other human living in this Dark City is actually trapped by space alien Strangers on space station, what the movie fundamentally questions is the nature of reality and human’s perception of themselves within that reality. Because John’s past of being a serial killer is nothing more than implanted memories, we come to see the attempt by the Strangers to unlock the ‘code’ of human individuality is really about the nature of the self and how fluid or unchangeable it is. Like consciousness itself, are we merely a sum of parts, or do we have an undeniable ‘spirit’ that truly guides our actions – or more plainly, do we indeed have souls?
While often-times heavy handed in this questioning and with special effects that occasionally fall short of ideal, Dark City’s lasting influence on modern fiction movies dealing with these questions in its brooding noir style is unmistakable.
The Matrix, released a year later, used literally some of the same sets as Dark City, leaning heavily into the dark nature of the film. This darkness was crafted thanks to Dark City’s director, Alex Proyas whose ‘breakout’ directorial role was at the helm of Brandon Lee’s ‘The Crow‘, another modern-gothic whose cult status largely overshadows Dark City. Yet you can see the more prominent echoes of Dark City in works like The Cell, Inception, The Thirteenth Floor, Minority Report and Equilibrium, all films that mix science fiction with elements of muddied identity amidst dreamlike worlds skewed with dark undertones of horror. Christopher Nolan himself stated Dark City was one of his inspirations for Memento and can anyone doubt the film still had a hold on the director when you look at the gothic architecture and noir-mood in the Dark Knight franchise reboot.
Apart from the style and tone, the villainous Stranger’s of the film tapped into nineties fears of government agents (1993’s Waco siege), alien conspiracies (The X-Files), and the growing mainstream angst of a society that began to realize they were nothing more than ‘sleepers’ in an out-of-control world fundamentally divorced from their own wants, needs and desires and ruled by an elite who viewed the masses as nothing but useful tools (#grunge).
Dark City is a film that heavily influenced my expectation of brooding and dark storylines and I will probably always compare any clandestine agents in any film to the Strangers of this nineties forgotten gem. And what’s more, they offer us a great menace at the table – so let’s get to it!
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Like music? Tone-wise, why not a group that epitomizes the outsider – The Doors Strangers fits the dissociative #feels in Dark City’s John Murdoch quite nicely.