Friday, November 13, 2009

Film Friday: Dark City (1998)

Today we take a look at an amazing and underrated science fiction flim: Dark City. Written and directed by Alex Proyas (The Crow, I, Robot), Dark City is a combination film-noir crime story and creepy, shocking science fiction story, which explores what makes us who we are. If you haven’t seen Dark City, you should. You should also check out Roger Ebert's commentary on the DVD -- it will give you a whole new level of respect for the film, for filmmaking as a craft, and even for Ebert's knowledge of films.

** spoiler alert **

One of the things that makes science fiction so great compared to other genres is its ability to ask truly deep philosophical questions without becoming a dry dissertation. Indeed, unlike most genres, science fiction can weave these questions seamlessly into storylines and use fantastic devices, creatures, or environments to play out the possibilities without ever losing the story element that people expect in entertainment. Dark City does this expertly. It also has a first rate plot, characters, and sets, plus its story moves quickly and surprisingly, and it keeps the viewer engaged from start to finish.
The Plot
Have you ever woken up next to the body of a dead hooker? John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) has. But did he kill her? As he struggles to wake up, the phone rings. He answers it. He is warned to run as men are coming for him. He flees. But Murdoch can’t remember who he is, and he’s haunted by images of a beach. We soon meet Murdoch’s wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) and police detective Bumstead (William Hurt), who is tracking Murdoch. But things are not right with them either. This case doesn't add up to Bumstead, but he can’t put his finger on why. The detective who worked the case before him has gone insane.

As the story unfolds, we learn that the world is not what it seems. It is always night. At midnight, everyone falls asleep -- except for Murdoch and the very strange Dr. Schreber (Keifer Sutherland), the man who warned John to flee. While they sleep, the city changes around them. Buildings expand or shrink. And a group of dark leather clad albinos (the Strangers) roam the city, and with the help of Schreber, inject people with a strange mixture. When the people awake, they have new lives -- new jobs, new families, new memories.

We soon learn the city is a sort of lab. The Strangers are manipulating people’s lives in an attempt to understand the human soul. To that end, they are mixing people’s personalities, their emotions, and their lives, and monitoring the results. Murdoch, who seems to have some of the powers possessed by the Strangers, is the only one who can stop them.
Are We Ourselves?
Beyond the plot itself, Dark City explores the question of what makes us who we are? Most of us think we know who we are, but do we really? Are we the product of our memories or are we something more? Are you sure? What would happen if the next time you woke up, you no longer had your memories, would you be the same person or would someone new emerge? What if rather than having no memories, you had someone else’s memories? Would you become that person?

Dark City delves into this question head on. Night after night, the Strangers mix people’s memories, adding a little of this to a little to that. One day you’re a bank President, the next you’re a cop. One day you have a family, the next you’ve always been single. This process is called “imprinting.” As the story develops, Murdoch and Bumstead learn about the imprinting. They realize that nothing they know is true, i.e. all their memories are fake. Indeed, they know nothing at all. They don’t know where they are, what year it is, or who they are. Even their families are not really their families.

Bumstead is a cop. . . or is he? He has no idea who he was the day before last, or the one before that, or before that. And now that he knows this, is he still a cop just because he was a cop when he realized the truth? He acts that way. In fact, despite suddenly realizing that the whole world is fake, he continues to act in the exact way he's been programmed. Perhaps that's the only way for him to remain sane? Murdoch wakes up next to the dead hooker, holding a bloody knife. Did he kill her? He doesn't actually know. But does it matter since he was given the motivation to kill her? Does that make him a killer or just a tool? And is there a difference?

Interestingly, when Murdoch learns that his memories have all been implanted, he consciously rejects those memories because he knows they are fake. BUT, he clings to one memory in particular from “his” youth. This memory, of a beach, obsesses him -- even though he has no way to know if it’s any more real than the other memories (and likely isn’t). He also finds himself drawn to Emma, even though she is not really his wife. Thus, on the one hand, he consciously rejects the idea that he has become what the Strangers made him, i.e. he rejects the idea that his memories make him who he is and he claims to have the power to define himself, BUT he ultimately builds his new life upon foundations that the Strangers put in place and thereby proves that he remains a prisoner of those memories.

And that gets us to the take away question from the film. Are we simply a collection of the things we've learned and experienced, or are we something separate and apart? If you took away those memories and experiences would we still be us or would be become someone new? Oh, and lest you think this question is just a theoretical musing, it is worth noting that science is catching up to science fiction. Not only has it become apparent that you can plant memories in people, but science developed a pill that wipes out specific memories.

Perhaps the world of Dark City isn’t as far off as it seems?


Writer X said...

I seem to recall watching this movie. Maybe when I was someone else? ;-) Must rewatch it.

Love all the story questions about what defines us. This sort of reminds me of a more high-tech (and not quite so campy) Twilight Zone. My kinda movie. You're right about science fiction, too. You can get away with so much more because you can effectively create your own world. Very cool.

Great review!

Di said...

This film is one of my husband's favorites, along with Bladerunner(which deals with many of the same issues). I think that we are, to a large extent, products of our memories and experiences. However, I believe that we have a core self that really determines who we are, and that self is hard to change regardless of circumstances or memories, and informs how we respond to our experiences.

AndrewPrice said...

Thank X, Glad you liked it! I completely agree about science fiction. Science fiction lets you address all kinds of neat issues because you aren't limited to the world we know.

You can also disguise so much through the clever use of characters and environments that act as metaphors for real world issues, so you can create a story that is both deep and thoughtful, but also can be taken as just sheer entertainment.

Few other genres give you the same ability.

AndrewPrice said...

Di, I want to believe that there is a core to me that is the real me, regardless of environment or memories. In other words, I would like to think that I'm the same person even if I was born in a different family, a different time, or a different culture.

But a lot of what we're seeing in science today does make me wonder -- particularly the total personality changes they can cause with certain medications now. That's creepy stuff!

StanH said...

"Dark City" is cool sci-fi, but at times a bit dark for me, no pun intended. There are no real winners, and I found it hard to really pull for anyone. It has a “Twelve Monkeys” vibe with a dose of “Ground Hog Day.” But if it’s your cup of tea, good review!

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, A lot of people have compared Dark City to The Matrix because of the similar themes, except that The Matrix goes much deeper. I've been waiting to write a review of The Matrix until I get a week or two to plan it, because there's so much going on -- people have written dissertations on it.

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: I watched it once, and didn't entirely "get it." The second time, things started to fall into place. The third time, I was hooked. As StanH said, I saw some of "Twelve Monkeys" in it, but it was ever more layered than that. I'm not usually that slow to pick up what's going on, but this was a very complicated movie.

ScottDS said...

I saw this movie once five years ago (both by itself and with Ebert's commentary) and I recall enjoying it but I think I need to see it again. (Understatement of the year.)

Interestingly enough, this is one of three movies that feature Jennifer Connelly and pier imagery - the others being Requiem for a Dream and House of Sand and Fog.

As for the subtext of the film... I don't know. Like you, I'd like to believe there is some basic blueprint and everything we experience afterwards is simply adding to it... but take that all away and give me a different life, there might still be some constants.

To put it in another way, you know I'm a big Star Trek fan. But if I had grown up in a different household where my mom didn't introduce me to the show, is it possible I still would've become a Trek fan through some other means?

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, This wasn't an easy one because they don't spell much out for you. It takes a couple viewings to get what they are talking about just beneath the surface.

Glad you liked the movie though! Great minds, right?

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I too like to think that there is something within me that constitutes me core, but it is entirely possible there isn't.

If my parents had not taught me to be so inquisitive, would I value knowledge and thinking as much as I do? If I grew up in 1000 BC, would I still be me? I don't know. I think it's a fascinating question though.

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: LOL. At least we're wise enough to admit that we don't always get it the first time around.

AndrewPrice said...

Wisdom comes in being unafraid to admit that we don't know everything. . . a fortune cookie taught me that!

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: Good to know we get our great wisdom from the same source. LOL

MegaTroll said...

Thanks for the review. I thought you'd stopped doing the films. I'm glad you didn't. Cool flick.

AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome Mega. I've been too busy to write these (they take a surprisingly large amount of time). So I can't guarantee I'll always get them done, but I will try.

tryanmax said...

Ah! One of my favorite films, if not the favorite. I sit down with this about every six months or so, specifically looking for new things. I've been doing this for about a decade now. This is one of those rarest of gems that never gets old. (Incidentally, my original VHS copy is unwatchable now, but I still won't part with it. Same with Fight Club.)

I prefer the director's cut, which again is a rarity. The only major difference is that it drops the opening narration, which puts the viewer in the same mental state as Murdoch at the outset. I wish I could go back in time and see it that way first. The rest is minor stuff. A little extra attention is paid to the ancillary characters we meet during the "tunings," which is a superior substitute for the narration. Also, the director uses Connelly's vocals in the nightclub scene rather dubbing Anita Kelsey's in. I don't really understand why that decision was made in the first place. Connelly is a first-rate singer.

I noticed that you didn't give much attention to the acting when you wrote this review. I hope you won't mind my supplement.

Rufus Sewell is not an actor I have much familiarity with, but he does fit the role of John Murdoch nicely. Essential to the role is the ability to move the character from utter bewilderment to total confidence without changing who the character is. Sewell pulls this off nicely by giving us glimpses of Murdoch’s internal steadfastness from the earliest moments of the film.

William Hurt logs in a typically William Hurt performance as Inspector Bumstead. In fact, in his fedora and long coat, he looks stripped from the pages of a classic detective comic. A solid casting choice if only because it leaves so little room for comment.

Conversely, we are treated to Keifer Sutherland in a rather atypical role for him. Rather than playing a strong and confident lead, we meet Dr. Schreber, a sniveling opportunist and cohort of the Strangers. His redemption is that he recognizes in Murdoch a savior for the rest of humanity and fosters it the only way he knows how: a special imprint cocktail. Sutherland throws himself into the role and one can’t help but feel pangs for the wretched character he portrays.

Jennifer Connelly’s role as Emma is less important than the others in terms of moving the plot. She represents the untold number of citizens who are simply caught up in the Strangers’ scheme. As such, she is played with utter sincerity, which is precisely what is called for. Of course, Connelly’s natural beauty enlivens every scene she is in, but this film certainly does not showcase her full talent.

Again, this film is a rare gem, especially within the science fiction genre. Aside from the main characters, every supporting, minor, and bit part is played with absolute authenticity. Nothing ever seems hokey or strained. An exemplary moment comes when a couple is instantly transformed by the strangers from poor to wealthy. Their conversation changes completely, but not a beat is lost. They are oblivious to the switch.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I too wish I could see this one for the first time again because it really is such a fantastic mystery with such incredible twists and turns. I can't recommend this film highly enough to people.

Excellent breakdown of the acting! I agree entirely. I think this is truly excellent science fiction -- it does everything right, from the plot to the atmosphere to the acting to the effects. It all works together to create a deep and brooding world that you really do get lost in.

Sewell impressed me a lot too. He gives this role exactly what it needs. He's never over the top and, as you note, he doesn't change his character like I think a lot of other actors would have. A Tom Cruise, for example, would have played angry and confused in the first scene and then confident and cocky once he got a handle on things. Sewell doesn't. Sewell plays it exactly like a real person would if they woke up under these circumstances -- never too sure, never over-confident. He's completely believable for someone who wakes up in a strange world.

I was super impressed with Sutherland too. This was such a different role than anything else he's played and he plays it so excellently. You can almost crawl into his mind as you watch the character, even with only a minimum of dialog!

One question that has always fascinated me about this film is what era is it? Where did these people come from? I know the film doesn't answer that, but are these people from the 1930s? the 1830s? or 2530? I'd love to know more. If they made it back to Earth, what would they find?

(P.S. Fight Club is great!)

tryanmax said...

I've always gotten the sense that the Strangers have abducted people over time, replacing people as needed. As they say, "We use your dead as vessels." So we know people have died. I've noticed that while the overall atmosphere seems rather 1940s-ish, there are some newer bits of technology and later model automobiles.

I'd say that the people are from "now-ish" but the mixing of memories has obliterated any definitive sense of particular era. The hodgepodge of technology and trends is because all the Strangers know about humanity comes from jumbled memories.

RE: Sutherland. Try watching the film sometime with Dr. Schreber in mind as the protagonist. It opens the story up in whole new ways.

AndrewPrice said...

That's a good point, we can probably infer what Earth is like from what we see because they are basing their world on what they find inside the minds of these people. So it probably is "now-ish."

That actually sparks another interesting thought -- everything is so dark and evil in this world, but since it's based on what they found in our mind, I guess that's meant to be a message about us? In many ways, this city is the nightmare view of a place like New York City.

Excellent thought about Schreber. I'll have to do that!

Post a Comment