Remembering Dark City: 15 Years Later

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I’ve never been a big fan of The Matrix. I remember when it came out, all my friends were so psyched on the bullet time and swirling camera techniques. Everybody seemed to be dropping acid and heading to the metroplex to have their minds blown by Neo and friends. I, however, was immediately suspicious of the vaunted originality of the plot because I was already a big fan of a film with similar themes that came out the previous year, Dark City. In honor of it’s fifteen year anniversary this February, let’s take a look back.

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Of course the city and the Matrix are not entirely the same concept. Although they were filmed on many of the same sets since The Matrix purchased them from Dark City after production ended. Both films play with the notion that there is a greater unseen and potentially unknowable subterfuge to our everyday reality. The late 90s seemed to have a glut of films with these kinds of questions. It’s interesting to note that Dark City debuted in theaters in February of 1998 and then in June of the same year another film was released featuring a phony reality created in a fabricated city, The Truman Show. America was still enjoying the relative peace and prosperity of the decade. The dot-com bubble had yet to burst, in fact the poster-child for dot-com failure Pets.com was only about to be founded in August of 1998. Not until 9/11 would we see an explosion in genre cinema reacting to real world fear, that would become the torture porn sub-genre. The late 90s were ruled by escapism and navel gazing. Consider the fact that  12 Monkeys, Dark City, The Matrix, Existenz, The City of Lost Children, The Thirteenth Floor and Cube all came out in the same 5 year period. Dark sci-fi definitely had a home in the late 90s.

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Dark City just hit me at the exact right time and on all the right levels. It’s such an original film and at the same time pulls together so many elements of familiar films. Visually it is reminiscent of both noir and German expressionism (especially Fritz Lang’s Metropolis). The mysterious villains in the film, the strangers, often look and behave like the Cenobytes in Hellraiser. Yet, the ideas that make the foundation of the film were so fresh and strange at the time it debuted. I loved the creepiness of the idea that everything around us could be a complete illusion and that we would be absolutely powerless even to discover that we were being tricked, never mind discover the truth.

3. Dark City film still (1998)

As fans of the film probably know by now, the studio forced director Alex Proyas to add an explanatory voice over at the opening of the film. Fearing that the audience would not understand the film, they made the director add one of the only elements of the film that really doesn’t belong. To make another parallel to The Matrix, the studio required a large amount of expository dialogue in that film due to their belief that the script was one that “nobody understands.” At any rate we open on a man, whom we come to know as John Murdoch, awakening in a strange hotel room with a dead, mutilated women on the floor in the next room. It’s a great depiction of the kind of nightmare you have where you’ve committed a crime, and the dream is so real to you that when you awaken you’re still worried that  you might be in trouble. Murdoch is contacted by a man claiming to be his doctor, who tells him to leave immediately. He makes a narrow escape before we first see the strangers appear. This beginning sets up the essential mystery of the film. Who is John Murdoch and where has he been? What has he done? He is the one constant in the ever-changing city. Because of this, he is the only one beside the strangers who is aware of the constant manipulation of reality. (Similar to Neo in The Matrix or, to some extent, James Cole in Twelve Monkeys) He is also the only being, aside from the strangers, with the ability to “tune”, which is to manipulate time and space with his mind. This is the way the strangers constantly recreate the city night after night for their mysterious experiments aided by Kiefer Sutherland’s rather strange Dr. Shreber.

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The fact that a film with such a fantastic setting and such strange ideas is given a plot that at its core is a simple mystery is essential. If it had tried to build a complicated mythology, like say the Matrix sequels,  it would have sunk under it’s own weight. Writer/Director Alex Proyas very wisely used restraint in the plot department knowing that the setting and story were strange enough on their own. Proyas has gone on to explore some of the same ideas that he presented in Dark City in other films to mixed success. He was the director on the Nicolaus Cage vehicle Knowing and I, Robot starring Will Smith. It’s also notable that he directed The Crow. I guess that’s where the Goth costumes came from.

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There’s no getting around it, Dark City was a failure at the box office. It opened at fourth place with Titanic still dominating in its 11th week of wide release. The Wedding Singer and Good Will Hunting were second and third respectively. Revenue dropped by half in its second week of release, Titanic still crushing. It lasted 4 weeks in domestic theatrical release and ranked 105 for the year. I myself only saw it a dollar theater. Once I did see it, I went back to see it again, but by that time I wasn’t helping all that much. However, it got good reviews from the very beginning and like so many other great films these days, found its audience on video. It currently enjoys a 76% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s influence is also hard to refute as well. From films like the lackluster Adjustment Bureau to Christopher Nolan’s Inception, there are definitely shades of Dark City to be found in a lot of sci-fi these days. Don’t see bullet time that much anymore though. Just saying.

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If you’re in the Houston area, come to a screening of Dark City on Feb. 6th!

Jonathan Watson

About Jonathan Watson

Father, husband, horror fan. I fell in love with the genre around age 5 when I began watching, the Rankin/Bass classic, Mad Monster Party on repeat. Now that I have little monsters of my own, I'm looking forward to training them in a couple of years. For the time being, I'll be satisfied to entertain you fine folks. Now, go make me look good and buy some shirts already.