Dark City, 1998’s most notable metaphysical sci-fi, neo-noir psychological action thriller, is a moody and perplexingly byzantine creation. Visually arresting but narratively exhausting, it attempts to cram a remarkable amount of thematic and narrative stuff into the precisely delimited universe it conjures up within its intricate sets. The world it depicts is in some ways visually singular. And yet, at the same time, it wears its myriad influences on its cinematic sleeve – Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Jeunet and Caro’s Delicatessen and (without question) The City of Lost Children, also perhaps the Cohen Brother’s Barton Fink, and even Warren Beatty’s Hollywood homage to Dick Tracy.
But even more curious than Dark City’s similarity to its influences is its similarity to its contemporaries. Dark City will be perhaps forever lumped in with The Thirteenth Floor and The Matrix. All three movies share the same time period – released between February 1998, Dark City, and May 1999, The Thirteenth Floor – and also share the same psychedelic skepticism about life, the universe, and everything – “Like, what if this is all a dream, man?”
Our protagonist is John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), who at the start of the film has woken up with a start in a clawfoot tub filled with murky water. There’s an overhead light swinging a wide arc like a pendulum, alternately illuminating one half of the room then the other, again and again. Murdoch’s surroundings are rather dim and dingy, with dark green tiles on four sides, a sink, a mirror, a toilet, and a door. No window. Between the sink and the door is a chair with clothes draped on it. In the mirror he notices a small hole in his forehead from which a thin stream of blood has dripped down.
Because, as we come to realize, John is suffering from an acute case of amnesia, this first scene feels something like a live-action rendering of a text-based adventure game: “You wake up suddenly. As you groggily scan your surroundings, you see that you are lying in a tub, which is filled up to your neck with dirty water. You appear to be in a bathroom. There is a light overhead. To your right you see a door. What would you like to do?”
John (let’s call him John Doe) gets dressed and leaves the bathroom and then slips on the wet floor just outside the door. While reaching out to steady himself he knocks over a fishbowl (contents: one goldfish) that had been on a table just next to the door. John rescues the fish by dropping it into the still full (though now not so filthy) tub, then comes back out into the main room to find a jacket (with keys in the pocket) and a suitcase (monogrammed: KH; contents: men’s clothing and a postcard – “Greetings from Shell Beach” – that seems to jog his memory a little).
The phone rings. It’s “a doctor,” who frantically informs our John Doe that there’s been an “experiment,” his memory has been erased, and there are people “coming for” him, “even as we speak.” That’s when John notices, on the floor just on the other side of the bed, the quite dead body of a young woman, her flesh marked with bloody spirals. Perhaps the calling card of a serial killer? No time to explain. We’re off.
Over the next hundred minutes or so John will have to, with the help of some allies (are they really?) and in opposition to some enemies, find out who he is, what happened to him, and whether or not he had anything to do with the dead girl he found or the several other girls whose deaths he’s being blamed for. That’s enough material for your average psychological thriller, but very little about Dark City is average and, as the hackneyed will have it, nothing is quite as it seems.
You see, John Murdoch is being pursued by The Strangers, thoroughly creepy powder-faced, high-collared, nosferatus (both in visual resemblance and aqua/photo-sensitivity). They are apparently running the show, which goes on every night at midnight (though there is no daytime to speak of) and consists of a city-wide suspended animation that allows The Strangers to mess with the architecture, re-adjust the artifacts of everyone’s backstory, and chemically alter their memories.
Murdoch is the only one unaffected by the soporific power of The Strangers. He is also blessed with a superpower they call “tuning,” which is (special effects aside) basically a stand in for free will. Murdoch’s singular abilities, and the machinations of The Strangers, put him in danger of contracting Truman Syndrome and having the sense of being, at least for an hour or so starting every midnight, the only living boy in dark city.
There is way too much going on here to be able to explain it all in 10,000 words or less. Suffice it to say that, before all is said and done, the plot gets fairly complex. Along the way it dips its thematic big toe into a myriad of pools including, but not limited to free will, dreams and their relationship to reality, conspiracy, manipulation, paranoia, fate, reincarnation, solipsism, monism, epistemology, madness, suicide, transcendence, enlightenment...and on, and on.
Believe it or not (and it’s very believable) Dark City and The Matrix were filmed in the same studio – Fox Studios in Sydney, Australia – and even used some of the same sets. But they share much more than that. The two movies also have a certain similarity in visual style (sickly green dilapidated metropoli cloaked in perpetual darkness), in the aforementioned thematic preoccupations, and even in details of plot. (More on that in a second.) Though Dark City’s release predates the release of The Matrix by almost exactly one year, they were both in production around the same time, so it’s difficult to say if one really influenced the other. And yet, the similarities are unavoidable.
John Murdoch is Dark City’s Neo (Keanu Reeves), complete with his superhuman ability to alter his environment. Dark City also has its own Morpheus in Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), even though he may not look like Laurence Fishburne. (Imagine Sutherland’s Doc Scurlock from Young Guns but make him more of a dandy, give him a lazy eye, imagine that he is always just about to hyperventilate – in a sort of snivelling, rat-faced way – and then enroll him in the William Shatner School of Melodramatic Delivery.) Schreber is Murdoch’s guru, his sensei, the one who recognizes his potential and cultivates his power.
The Strangers are quite a lot like the agents in The Matrix trilogy. So the Agent Smith of Dark City is Mr. Hand, (Richard O’Brien), but less like Hugo Weaving and more like a test tube baby engineered from genetic material supplied by Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, and, well, Dwight Schultz (another Murdock, this one from the A-Team). (Mr. Hand, btw, bears no relation to Mr. Arnold Hand, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, though Ray Walston would have made a good Mr. Book. But then Mr. Book wouldn’t have looked quite so much like Darth Vader with his helmet off – “John Murdoch, I am your father.” I digress.)
(Thematic complexity side note: In pursuit of John Murdoch, Mr. Hand becomes something of a Jesus figure, an avatar, one who descends/crosses over into the mortal world. In this case, he elects to have John’s memories injected directly into his skull so that he’ll know what John knows, and know where to look. But in the moment that he sees the identity (or identities) of the murderer, he also becomes Lucifer, a fallen angel. Anyway, this sequence yields one of the movies best lines (admittedly, not such a high bar): “Oh yes, Mr. Book. I have John Murdoch in mind!”)
There’s also John’s wife, Emma Murdoch, then Anna, not Murdoch (Jennifer Connelly, who could apparently make a career out of standing at the end of docks, staring out at the infinite ocean and motivating troubled men to be their best selves). She’s no Trinity, at least as far as kickass female sidekicks are concerned. But, insofar as all Hollywood movies contractually oblige their screenwriters to include a love interest, she’s the one to John Murdoch’s the one.
(Oh, and, there’s also Inspector Frank Bumstead, played by William Hurt, as sad as ever, but this time with an accordion. And May (Melissa George), who is blonde and pretty and bound to suffer from occupational hazards. But neither of them have much to do with how Dark City resembles The Matrix, or, rather, how The Matrix resembles Dark City. Anyway...)
Despite their similarities, the ways in which Dark City sets itself apart is also worth noting. The Matrix was and is famous for its use of CGI in the creation of its fantasy world. In Dark City, the use of digitally generated images is kept to a minimum – only when absolutely necessary. To its credit, Dark City makes use of very elaborate sets (including models), lighting, choreography, and in-camera effects. It’s no wonder that the film, which on its release garnered some critical praise but underperformed at the box office, has attracted more and more champions over the years. And while the complex philosophy that underlies both films could (and has) generated volumes of insightful prose, only one of them went on to muddle its legacy with a couple superfluous sequels.