Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Dark City definitely belongs in the Most Interesting SF Film Category. I have now seen the theatrical version twice and just recently viewed the Director's Cut. I will watch it again for it is one of those few films that rewards multiple viewings.

The overall plot is an intriguing one, but not because it's new or unique. On the contrary, I'll bet that most of you can come up with a number of stories and films that feature the following plot. The main character wakes up in a motel or hotel room and finds a dead body in the bed. The main character frequently has no idea of the identity of the body or at least has no idea of how they came to be sharing the same room. Last night is a blank. The major question is the identity of the killer--is it the main character? In some cases, the main character has complete amnesia and doesn't even know who he or she is.

To heighten the tension and complicate the plot, writers sometimes will throw in a secret group or organization which plays a role in the situation that now needs to be uncovered. The secret group is usually hostile to the main character. The main character then spends the rest of the story, usually one step ahead of the police and this secret group, if there is one, trying to unravel the mystery before being captured or killed, either by the police or by the secret group.

In Dark City, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up or comes to in a hotel room. The other occupant is a dead woman. He gets a phone call from a Doctor Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) who tells him that the experiment went wrong and he's lost his memory. Moreover, he needs to leave the room immediately because the Others are coming to get him. Murdoch leaves, just ahead of three men who enter the room. They remind me very strongly of Nosferatu, the vampire in the German film which came out in 1922. The three men or two men and a child are dressed in long black leather? coats which reach nearly to the ground and large black hats with wide brims. Their complexion is chalk white. One might guess that these are bad guys that one doesn't want to mess with.

Shortly afterwards, the police (William Hurt) appear on the scene, and we learn this is the 5th or 6th prostitute that has been killed this way. There's a serial killer loose, and now they have a suspect--John Murdoch. Murdoch finds his wallet in his coat and learns that he is John Murdoch and that he has a home and a wife (Jennifer Connelly).

Now the game begins. Who is John Murdoch and why did he find himself in a hotel room with a body and with no memory? Who is the doctor who called him? What does his wife know? Who is the group that is after him? In other words, it is a Quest, and the goal of the quest is identity.

The City seems to be set in the 1940s and 50s, with some elements from later periods. It was constructed out of the memories of the inhabitants. Each night, the City changes as some buildings sink down into the ground while others emerge. Some grow larger while others shrink. This is urban renewal on a grand scale.

It is always night for the aliens are bothered by sunlight. There seems to be borrowings here from the vampire myths, especially since the aliens strongly resemble the vampire in the film Nosferatu and fear sunlight. In a sense they can be seen as drinking human memories rather than human blood.

Alex Proyas, the director, has also separated the world of the humans from the aliens' world with lighting. The various colors found in the human world lack intensity or saturation while the lighting in the alien underworld gives everything a bluish-greenish look, in which the aliens in their long black coats and black hats blend in, but their chalk-white complexions almost appear luminous, like some evil phosphorescent fungus that lives solely in the dark. It is the lighting that is most responsible for uncanny look of the film, that and the combination of the 1940s-60s elements present. It's surprising the effect one can get simply by using the old black telephones. Something is wrong somewhere. This is an alien world.

The Director's cut has eleven minutes in it that were cut from the theatrical version. Most of the changes were minimal and involved extending a scene for some added dialogue. The major difference actually was the removal of the voice-over introduction in the theatrical version that was added at the studio's insistence. The powers-that-be felt that US audiences wouldn't put up with not knowing everything at the beginning. One effect that I noticed was that Inspector Bumsted (William Hurt) started catching on a bit earlier in the director's cut than he did in the theatrical version.

Overall Rating: If you are interested in SF films with some ideas that try to go beyond ray guns and slavering monsters, I would recommend this film, highly.


The film gives new meaning to the theme of identity theft. The human inhabitants of the City are actually subjects in an experiment conducted by aliens. The aliens have kidnapped the humans and placed them in the City, sort of a large scale version of a maze that psychologists construct for experiments on white rats. In fact, early in the film we see just such a maze with two white rats. Feel free to read into that scene what you wish. This maze appears several times throughout the film, including on the bodies of the dead prostitutes.

In what is probably the greatest example of identity theft (the real kind--not the identity borrowing that goes on today), all humans have had their memories extracted and turned into chemicals. The aliens have allowed one human, a psychiatrist, to retain only his knowledge of the human mind, and he then mixes up a few ingredients--an unhappy childhood, early loss of parents, an unhappy love affair-- and injects a human with this mixture. The human is then observed to see how he or she will act in the circumstances they are inserted into.

Every night at midnight, all humans are thrown into a deep sleep, during which time the aliens insert the false memories and reconstruct the environment to match the memories, if necessary. The aliens are able to do this because they have various mental powers which are augmented by the machines they have devised.

Occasionally something goes wrong, and some humans awaken without the false memories and wander around in a daze until the aliens pick them up. Murdoch is one of those. But, Murdoch is different because he also has the same power as the aliens but doesn't know it. One of his tasks is to learn how to use his power against the aliens.

Murdoch's task is threefold--uncover the mystery behind what is going on, avoid the guys in the long black coats, avoid the police, and learn to use his power so he will be ready for the showdown at the end.


  1. I haven't seen this film in awhile, but I remember liking it. Have you seen "Donnie Darko"? I thought it had a similar feel to it. It, too, has the "what is real" theme.

  2. Cheryl,

    Yes, I've seen both the "theatrical" and the "director's cut" versions of _Donnie Darko_. I found it an interesting and enjoyable film which perhaps tried to do too much.

    There's a sequel out now--_S. Darko_--which features Donnie's sister Samantha. I haven't seen it, but a friend of mine (he's the one who recommended _Donnie Darko_) said it was terrible.

    The "what is real" theme is a popular one in SF. Many of PK Dick's novels, especially his later ones, play with that idea.