When it comes to film makers and their ilk, Alex Proyas is a personal favorite director of mine because I have a soft spot for the cult classic that is his rendition of “The Crow” (1994), from the graphic novels of the same name. Seemingly fascinated with allegorical future-gone-ape-shit-crazy ideas, he is also the man behind “I, Robot” (2004) and “Knowing” (2009).
Yet I must say “Dark City” (1998) is something of a crowning achievement. A mishmash of nostalgic genres, mixing neo-Noir and early elements of Sci-Fi reminiscent of German masterpiece Metropolis, it still managing to remain new and fresh (for 1998 when it was originally released). The plot of Dark City revolves around John Murdoch (played by Rufus Sewell to great effect) as he awakens alone in a hotel room, and realizes as he further ventures out into the city, that something is seriously wrong. More like unnatural. Suffering amnesia and having no idea why or how he wound up being wanted for several murders, he stumbles around this odd city where everything changes from day to day, where it’s always dark and the sun never shines, and stranger still, no one knows how to leave! Realizing that everything is being controlled by God-like beings known as The Strangers, he must try to piece together his memories before he loses everything. So as not to ruin the movie for you, dear reader, that is all I shall divulge of the plot. But is this does not catch your fancy and drive you to check it out then read on.
Getting back to the themes of the film, interesting elements include the usage of Greek mythology parallels in a futuristic dystopian setting, making for interesting material for discussion. Another similarity between Metropolis and Dark City is the questioning of humanity, what exactly defines us or makes us human and who is in control of our lives. Some observant, and not to mention well read, viewers have also compared the film to Plato’s Allegory of The Cave because the residents of Dark City do not realize that they are, in fact, prisoners of The Strangers. The city itself is a visual treat for the darker of minds, with obvious elements of comic book black ink illustration, world war debris and a bleakness that is expected from any story about a shitty time to come, and is still believable and realistic. I personally found it delightful and just the right amount of dreary, before it might have crossed over into camp which would have been disastrous.
More visual homage to noir is also present. Take the villains for instance, who wear overcoats and homburg hats but look like their faces are pulled out of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (another stunning silent film in the ranks next to Metropolis). Even the situation John Murdoch finds himself in, waking to memories lost, blood, pain, and a dawning sense of dread, followed by the quintessential wheezing voice at the other end of a phone call warning him to run, are all elements we are already familiar with but that which fit so well in Dark City, it is almost like an entirely new experience.
What is surprising is how few people have actually seen Dark City, even though it is arguably standard budget with excellent effects, brilliant acting and a gripping script and story line. The film is only done justice on the bigger screen so please do yourself a favor and get the DVD and watch on a television screen. Look out for brilliant performances by William Hurt, who is always more often than not fantastic, and Jennifer Connolly in a precursor of her dark role in Requiem For A Dream.
Dark City is an adult adventure for those viewers who want to have their thoughts provoked and who carry a sense of curiosity and wonder about the world they inhabit. “Proyas floods the screen with cinematic and literary references ranging from Murnau and Lang to Kafka and Orwell, creating a unique yet utterly convincing world.” as said by one viewer, and this is probably the best description of the film in a sentence.
– Ramsha Zia Siddiqi