Film discussion

Throwback 20: Dark City (1998)

The name Alex Proyas, if mentioned three times in a bathroom mirror, won’t bring forth a cherub-like man with fretting eyes to rip your heart out like the Candyman, despite the name carrying a similar deathly comeuppance and notoriety. And if it did, he’d probably just rant at you about the misconception of “white-washing” and sit you down for a pot of Chamomile tea while discussing the latest decline in music videos. That’s because Proyas, a director who’s gone the way of myth or urban legend, has since faded into obscurity after a Pompeiian explosion of besmirching critics buried his 2016 Razzie winning film, Gods of Egypt, under molten hostility.

But before the Greek director’s Herculean downfall could be traced in the stars, films like Knowing and I, Robot proved middling critical and commercial successes that showed there was still a place in 21st century cinema for Proyas’ most prosaic work. Even when such a filmmaker appears to have fallen down the rabbit hole with angry tirades and a bombastic dismissal of critics, there tends to remain that singular film that keeps their career from completely going under, despite sinking quicker than Artax in the Swamp of Sorrow. And for me, no other film works better than Proyas’ allegorical love letter to noir, Dark City, which “tuned” its way into theatres 20 years ago.

It’s a film that came four years after the box-office success of cult comic book and unofficial Hot Topic spokesmodel, The Crow, flew in on controversy and heartache, which saw actor Brandon Lee fatally shot when a live percussion primer was accidentally left in the chamber of a gun during the filming of an integral scene. Despite the tragedy circling the release, the film – which Miramax assisted with an additional $8million, went on to nearly double its budget, ushering in the likes of a new brooding saviour of a darkened gothic metropolis. Dark City, Proyas’ second feature film, despite its critical praise, was not so commercially fortuitous, drawing only $200,000 more worldwide than its budget.

Opening with an amnesiac man, startled awake in the murky waters of a bathtub, inside a seaweed-green tiled bathroom, tucked away in a dimly lit hotel room, Dark City brings us back to a city constructed on – as the films leather clad pale-men, the Strangers, tell us – “different eras, different pasts all rolled into one.” A flat bottomed city that’s very existence is mechanised for the sole purpose of rearranging buildings, lives, which the Strangers, who we learn are merely gelatinous squid-like alien beings within the anaemic bodies of the cities dead, manipulate and construct like a director would on set.

They tinker and toy with the denizens and structures of the city, which flow like a German expressionistic tide – much of Fritz Lang’s iconic Metropolis architecture can be seen influenced here – rising and falling as the Strangers, led by a lissome figure named Mr. Hand (Richard O’Brian), alter the reality using a psychokinetic ability called tuning.

When the clock strikes midnight, which happens more often than anyone can really recall, the infrastructure shuts down – cars, subway trains, citizens – allowing the Strangers to float around, altering the memories of the entire city while rearranging the towering structures that move like the hands on a clock. We are told that “they abducted us here. This city, everyone in it, is their experiment.” It’s an expository narration (inserted post-production by New Line Studio as an introductive explanation) told to us by Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), the aliens memory maker. He inserts fabricated and chemically concocted lives into the citizens because the Strangers want to test them, see where the fabric unfolds in order to see what, as humans, makes them unique.

The buildings that make up Dark City are as familiar to us as the pawns that live by night – our memory addled John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), a downtrodden Detective Bumstead (William Hurt) who plays his deceased mothers accordion more than he does the streets, Murdoch’s crooning and unfaithful wife Emma (Jennifer Connolly). Perhaps that’s because they feel like so many pieces of arts own sprawling puzzle that it all becomes a blur. Edward Hopper painted street corners and Lang inspired lofts look one minute New York City, the next pointedly European, while Bumstead and Emma sway to the night’s beat the way Sam Spade or Brigid O’Shaughnessy would. As the characters memories and lives shift with the cityscape, so too does our recollection of what we’re witnessing; an era once remembered, deep within a film as startlingly new and exciting as ever.

There’s richness to the canvas Proyas captures, bathed in cavernous shadows that reveal more than they hide. Not because we can see into what they conceal, but because they highlight what needs to be seen: the dusted browns of Bumstead, the stressed yellows of a lonesome diner, a striking green across a smoky night club, or the grey’s of those who hunt our John. When we’ve become so entrenched in these defining colours, we’re shown a billboard of Shell Beach, a warm and inviting postcard from the edge that nobody can quite seem to remember. We’ve seen this use of a noir’s subverted colour palette before, perfected in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, except Dark City’s use of urban set pieces and constructed worlds further entrenches us in the loneliness of the noir.

We’re able to see as far down a city block as we can, right up until the point in which our eye breaks from the length of what is shown. Then onto another street, or perhaps a dead end where a door magically appears from out of the bricks, showing us just how isolated our characters are, even within a city that is everything and nothing all at once. Murdoch never knows who he really is, drifting from one corner to the next in search of answers, and it’s because of this device that makes his investigation our investigation; and it’s what turns Dark City into such a spellbinding affair.

What does it mean to remember? What’s a life without memories? And how can one even begin replicating the act of love? Not all of these questions are answered – or at the very least not completely – though it hardly matters when it forces us to ask ourselves. One of cinemas most stirring and striking kisses occur between these questions, when an arrested and cuffed Murdoch sits in front of Emma between Plexiglas, who tells him that she loves him, and that you “can’t fake something like that”. Reaching to kiss each other, the glass shatters as their lips touch, taking us back to a different time filled with different pasts, where a declaration of love can remind us of such an era where we first fell in love with cinema; and where we began to discover a part of us that can’t be replicated.

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