Dark City is a Film Noire Detective story and Matrix-esque Science fiction movie by the director of ‘The Crow‘. My reaction on watching it was ‘How did I miss this?!’ In 1998, with so many good movies being released and poorly publicized as a teen horror flick, Dark City passed under the radar. In a way it is unfair to describe Dark City as ‘Matrix-esque’, since it predates The Matrix, it would be fairer to say The Matrix is like Dark City.
So, what do they have in common? They are both movies about not trusting/questioning your reality. But I would personally say Dark City goes further with the concept, since it is not just about questioning the current situation, but your past, your memories and the essence of who you are. Non-human ‘agents’ who can manipulate the world chase the protagonist (the roof-top chase in both movies are strangely similar). There’s also a mental training scene. The protagonist is special, one might almost say, unique. *wink*
The point is not to do a direct comparison of the movies, but had things gone differently, Dark City could easily have had the reception the Matrix later received with it’s somewhat derivative knock-off.
The antagonists of Dark City are strange alien beings call ‘the Strangers’ that look like a cross between the Cenobites of Hellraiser and the Gentlemen from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They re-shape the world by an ability they call ‘tuning’. They want to understand humans by taking them apart and putting them back together again, giving them different memories and different lives, to locate the soul. I liked this inhuman motivation. What I didn’t like was that it’s inserted that they need to do this to survive, but it is never explained how this will save them. Are we supposed to feel sorry for them now? I think I would have found their experiments more sinister if it was simply something they wanted, rather than needed, to do.
The cast is a stellar team of mostly British film and TV actors. It’s likely you’ll recognise quite a few of them, even if you have trouble placing from where – which fits the mood of misplaced memories. Rufus Sewell plays John Murdoch; he was part way through the ‘tuning’ when something went wrong and is trying to discover who he really is. Jennefer Connely, of Labyrinth fame, is the female lead and it’s interesting to note that Labyrinth imagery turns up a lot in the movie. I think this is symbolic of the journey to find oneself. Connelly also sings some beautify, offbeat versions of well-know songs. I wonder if these slightly ‘off’ versions are also due to reality being messed with?
The atmosphere in the movie is impressive. It is always night (“What was the last time you remember doing something during the day?”) and the entire enormous City is an intricately built set. When reality is altered the special effect is impressive and eerie. Dark City is effective at world-building and the back story unravels as mystery. You see other minor characters in the background in different roles as clues [SPOILER] that their memories have been altered and they are now living different lives as the Strangers experiment every night. Small visual clues are scattered throughout so rewatching is rewarding to see what you missed. A seemingly insignificant memory from the past leads to an earth-shattering plot-twist.
If you like beautiful, dark, dreamlike imagery then this is for you. If you like conceptual sci-fi that asks you to question the nature of your reality then this is for you.