The 1998 film Dark City is as much a noir mystery as a science fiction film. Sadly, this movie has been largely forgotten. Last year the cobwebbed story got a new lease on life with the possibility of a series based on the film. Until that happens, the brilliance of Dark City and what it says about humanity should be explored. Director Alex Proyas’ uncanny masterpiece was an underseen cult classic between quality performances, gorgeous visuals, a stacked cast, and some of the creepiest villains in cinematic history. Primarily this is due to a far superior director’s cut being difficult to find initially. The now readily available cut removes the ill-placed voiceover and some questionable CGI that robs the film of all the suspense. Luckily you can find Proyas’ cut everywhere you stream movies now.
Starring Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly, Kiefer Sutherland, and William Hurt, this end of days story is deceptively soul-sucking. The film is always shot at night, and other beings tinker with humans as if they were living dollhouse inhabitants. Why they are doing it, and the final act reveals make it even darker, though.
Russell Sewel plays a man whose memory has betrayed him. John Murdock wakes up in a hotel with a murdered prostitute. A voice on the phone tells him to run. He has a wife he can’t remember and a life that doesn’t look at all familiar. Additionally, he appears to be the only person in the entire world that remains awake while everyone else sleeps. While everyone but John sleeps, horrifying creatures who are a mix of Hellraiser’s Cenobites and the Silent Ones from Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Hush episode reshape lives and the very structure of the world itself. It’s heady stuff that begs the question, why are they doing it, and would any of us be capable of finding our way out of the forever-night maze?
John is the only person that isn’t affected by the alien race that has been experimenting and studying the human race because they are running out of time. The hive-minded species is interested in us because of our individuality and believes that our souls could be the key to their survival. It’s typical advanced alien race villainry. John is an anomaly with telekinetic powers like The Strangers because of a glitch in the memory implantation process that occurs each night. He now can “tune” the world into whatever he thinks of. This makes him very dangerous to the aliens. With the eventual help of Dr. Schreber, a police detective, and his wife, John ushers in a new lighter era in the city.
What makes Dark City so great is the last act reveal, which gives us a gut punch of nihilistic fatalism only to be eclipsed by a beacon of hope. In the film’s closing moments, John defeats the Strangers and discovers the Dark City is a ship. He turns the ship city towards a star, ensuring it will have sunlight and reshapes the city into the fantasy Shell Beach. He has become a ray of hope in the darkness, even if no one may ever know it.
Dark City wants to explore what it means to be human. The Strangers are a parasitic race that uses humans as vessels. We are both their saviors and their slaves. Sutherland’s Dr. Schreber assists them because he has had his memory wiped but hates them and actively plots against them. Few humans are aware of what is happening, and most that do know have gone mad from the knowledge. The ignorant humans and the narrowly focused Strangers are both locked in their perception of reality. In this way, the allegory of Plato’s cave is seen.
The allegory of the cave is used to illustrate how humans see themselves and the world around us. In the story, a group of humans are chained to a cave wall facing the wall. Behind the people is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners, there are moving puppets and real objects on a raised walkway with a low wall. The chained humans cannot decern what is real and what is fake. But, because they have never seen anything but the cave wall, they believe it is all real.
The allegory questions what would happen if a prisoner was freed and ventured out into the world. If they returned, would they be able to rescue the other caged humans? Ultimately the conclusion is the remaining chained humans would kill the person trying to save them because they would be unable to comprehend anything other than their small reality. This story supposes two things. One, people in an echo chamber are stuck with their perception of reality, and humans are deeply flawed, scared beings who will protect their vision of reality at all costs, even if it means a less than happy life.
Everything that happens and all stimuli will feed the narrative. When the freed human went out into the world, they encountered sunlight which temporarily blinded them when they returned to the cave, which was dark. Those still chained to the wall would view this as proof that the world outside the cave was dangerous. Events feed perception until it becomes fact. When John chooses to make the alien planet Shell Beach, it is an act of compassion because none of them can ever go back home, but they can have a semblance of happiness. Telling them what happened to them immediately would only create chaos and pain. Essentially he left them chained to the wall but gave them something new to look at. He was helping them evolve while also making their lives less dismal.
It is the difference between knowledge and belief. Once the prisoner is freed, they can never return because they are changed just as they will not be welcomed back. This is seen in through Emma, who becomes Anna’s interaction with Bumstead and John. They act differently from the Strangers’ expectations because John acts differently. His behavior shapes theirs. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Humans are not just the sum of our memories but our experiences, genetics, and chemistry. Given enough time, perhaps the freed human could safely rescue everyone still chained to the wall but only after slowly introducing them to a new reality. Just as John changed Bumstead and Anna, he could change everyone else.
The Strangers are also stuck with their view of reality. They are a hive mind and, as a result, can not comprehend individuality. How a person is shaped would be impossible to ever really know because their artificial world isn’t real. It is just a shadow on the wall. The Strangers are doomed to die because they can not evolve and change their perceptions. It is also why they were so vulnerable to John and Dr. Schreber. They could not conceive of John’s abilities or Dr. Schreber’s will to defend his own people.
Dark City is one of those films that casual viewers didn’t know what to do with when it first came out. It was far too cerebral for the sci-fi action crowd, and its proximity to The Matrix further hampered its staying power. The less stellar theatrical release further hamstrung the great film that is finally getting the credit it is due. The dystopian nightmare should be placed alongside other films that feature Plato’s Cave, like Shutter Island, Inception, and The Truman Show.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.