Ethics & Public Policy Center

Dark City

Published in EPPC Online on February 1, 1998



Dark City by Alex Proyas is another example of the triumph of image over drama which has made postmodern movies what they are and, I believe, will someday be seen to have devastated the capacity of Hollywood to produce quality films. For drama, that is, there must be rules. Some things can happen and some things cannot happen, or the drama breaks away from its anchor in reality. But in the new po mo style movies like this one there are no rules. Anything can happen. At first glance, that may seem like a liberation of the imagination, but it is in fact its enslavement to mere fantasy. All that is left us of the representation of reality is more or less interesting images. And all that we have to admire in these images is the ingenuity—of conception or technique or both—with which they are contrived.

Thus it hardly seems worthwhile to describe the story of Dark City, since it is at once so preposterous and so trivial a part of what the movie is about. Kiefer Sutherland begins it in voiceover as one Dr. Daniel Paul Shreber who speaks in a strange, Orson Welles like voice. He tells us of Aliens, called “The Strangers,” who have developed “the ultimate technology: the ability to master physical reality by will alone.” Oh oh. In other words, no rules. This dissolving of things and magical conjuring up of other things they call “tuning.” The doctor says: “I help the aliens conduct their experiments; I have betrayed my own kind.

The Aliens are pale baldies in black trenchcoats and fedoras who roam the streets at night robbing people of their memories. They have the power to put everybody to sleep just at midnight, and the doctor goes around extracting memories from some and injecting memories in to others. It is unclear why he is doing this, except for a general idea that the Aliens want people’s memories for themselves, having lost their own on emigrating from their own planet. In its place they have constructed a world out of people’s memories—a world which is essentially that of noir film of the 1940s and 1950s (these exercises in postmodernism are always horribly incestuous) where the landscape is essentially an amalgam of New York and L.A. in the period, the people dress of the period and use period slang, and it is always the middle of the night.

The doctor’s experiment on John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) is prevented when the subject wakes up during injection—just in time to have old memories obliterated but before new ones are put in. No one ever wakes up. The doctor thinks Murdoch may be “a step up the evolutionary ladder.” In any case he has the aliens’ own power of “tuning.” Did he have it before? We are not told. Instead, he must try to rebuild his stock of memory, discovering that he has left his wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly), because she had an affair, though he remembers nothing about this. Emma, a lounge singer in an old fashioned neon lit bar, is contrite, but a little hazy about the supposed affair herself. Is it only another implanted memory?

Murdoch says, “I feel like I’m living someone else’s nightmare,” and it turns out he is. No one can get out of the nightmarish city, and the dawn never comes. Yet no one quite manages to realize this except a crazy cop called Walenski (Colin Friels) who tells Murdoch: “You can’t get out of the city; believe me, I have tried,” and then jumps in front of a train. Murdoch must convince Emma and another cop, Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt), that Walenski was on to something before the Aliens catch him and—well, do whatever they are going to do with him. The culmination of the pursuit is a mind duel between Murdoch, the precocious “tuner,” and the chief alien in which they frown at each other and blue lightning bolts pass between their heads—until one of them (guess which one) is exhausted and mastered by the other’s lightning bolts.

It is all very silly.

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