Sunday, January 23, 2011

Dark City

If you were to try to name the best merging of science fiction and film noir, many people would first think of Blade Runner, but I have another film in mind. A year before The Matrix introduced stylish trench coats and dark alleys to the genre, it had already been superbly done in Dark City. This is an extremely unique film with very neat sets and cool visuals. The story line is pure science fiction, which means that the World War II era film noir elements are done mostly for effect and as a kind of tribute, but the reason they are there is the same, even if on a much deeper level. Ok, if I sound like I'm speaking in riddles it is to reflect the mysterious nature of the film and before I get to the plot synopsis I should warn that it is better not knowing anything before you watch it for the first time. So please note the spoiler alert.

==================<<spoilers below>>=================

A man wakes up in a hotel room bathtub with amnesia and a brutally murdered prostitute in the bedroom. He receives a call from a stranger who tells him some people are coming for him and he must leave immediately. He flees as a group of men in black hats and overcoats arrive to take him. And so the adventure begins. It turns out that the ominous men in black are aliens who are using human bodies (borrowed from the deceased) to get around and who have the power to move and shape things with their minds, including causing their own bodies to fly and rendering people unconscious with the wave of a hand. They call it "tuning". But it's even worse, because these aliens are conducting experiments on humans to try to understand what makes us tick. Why? Their race is dying and they think humans may have the key to their survival. You see, they are like a hive species with a collective mind and they believe that acquiring individuality, in essence, individual "souls", is the answer. They don't realize that by treating their subjects like lab rats they are preventing themselves from ever attaining that higher nature. So they create a city from the memories of people and use their tuning powers to shape and re-shape the city each evening at midnight. During this process, everyone is rendered unconscious and they inject a whole new set of memories into their brains (with a syringe no less), so they can see how each person responds to each new situation they are placed in. In fact, the entire city is actually an isolated laboratory in space, surrounded by a force shield, that is always in darkness because the aliens cannot stand the light. Thus, each person lives out each evening with a new set of memories oblivious to what occurred the night before. It sounds so ridiculous you would think it would be hard to pull off, but it works mainly because the themes that it plays with are so fundamental to the human condition, and although it has a concrete story framework, it plays on screen like a dream, a fairy tale, something we are meant to interpret symbolically more than anything else.

Our main character, John Murdoch, is eventually found to somehow possess the same tuning abilities as the aliens and so they want to either destroy him or study him and sometimes can't decide which. He's also wanted for a string of murders that he did not commit. It was just another programming experiment that he happened to wake up from too early. William Hurt very nicely plays the film noir staple detective trying to solve the murder case and so he too is after Murdoch. Murdoch slowly learns of his situation from a very strange doctor named Shreber, played by Keifer Sutherland, who works for the aliens to create the memories that are implanted into their human subjects. His wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) is willing to believe his story, even though she is only his wife as of that evening due to the last memory transfer, and the detective eventually gives him the chance to prove his claims by going in search of Shell Beach. That is the place where his memory tells him he grew up and Murdoch spends most of the film trying to find it. It is so amazingly dream-like how every time he asks someone about it, they say they know of it, or have been there, but when asked how to get there, they are surprised when they find they have forgotten the specific directions. Eventually they come to where Shell Beach should be, and find just a poster on a brick wall at the edge of the city. Behind that wall, they discover, is empty space.
The aliens eventually capture Murdoch and think they can use him to find their answer but  Dr. Shreber pulls an ingenious trick that allows Murdoch to battle them and take over the city. This could of course turn into a hollow victory, since not only have the human subjects lost their home planet, they have also lost any memory of their real past and true identity. But John Murdoch does not succumb to despair and remakes his own world into one in which he can begin a new life. You see, the story is really about the triumph of the human spirit over even existential circumstances. The entire setting is meant to convey the dreary existence of psychological captivity. The humans believe they are free even through in truth they are not. The film noir motif has always been designed to convey a sense of the futility of the human condition, and so it serves to poignantly connect this concocted fairy tale to our own lives. The aliens are portrayed in numerous ways as being quite soul-less, from the subtle (as in their being named after inanimate objects like Mr. Book and Mr. Hand) to the symbolic (as in their society being focused around a huge machine), to the horrifying (as in the willingness to use mind control and even rape and murder as a way of studying the human condition).

There are lots of technical details you could pick at. Why are all the alien's bodies male? How do they stop traffic and move buildings around without killing the unconscious subjects? Why does Keifer Sutherland sound like he's out of breath every time he talks? But I think you will find yourself not worrying about all that since it is not the real point of the film. Some point out similarities with The Matrix, but they are mainly surface level, and since Dark City came first, the point is a bit moot. You can watch it and judge for yourself
here (if the link is still good).

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review; this film rarely gets the credit it deserves. The Matrix, Inception, et cetera all derive from the ideas first fleshed out in Dark City.