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Movie Review: Dark City

What makes us human? This existential question is explored by Dark City, one of the most original science fiction movies of the 1990s.

Rufus Sewell as John Murdoch in Dark City, directed by Alex Proyas.
Memory madness: John Murdoch (Rufus) Sewell.

THE 1990s was a ridiculously strong time for science fiction movies. Any decade which included blockbuster behemoths Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park but still barely scratched the surface was truly special. But carving out its own path through the galaxy of shimmering sci-fi stars was the uniquely philosophical and beautifully moody Dark City.    

Directed by Alex Proyas, Dark City is about human nature and 90s anxiety. It asks the question: is a person formed by their memories or by their innate morals and empathy? This is explored through John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), who wakes in an apartment next to a dead body with no memories amid reports that a serial killer is terrorising this mysterious city, which is cloaked in perpetual night. Did he commit these atrocities? Or will be become a killer? What unfolds is a strange tale of aliens conducting a grand experiment. Each night the ‘Strangers’ use their vast psychic powers to reshape the benighted township and implant new memories into their unwitting subjects - turning paupers into powerbrokers and police into perps - to discover the human soul. The scenes when the entire population falls asleep while buildings stretch, shrink and contort are reminiscent of Sam Lowry’s surreal dreams in Brazil.

Murdoch odysseys through a melange of 40’s and 50’s architecture which created a timeless and nostalgic setting that is familiar, strange and claustrophobic. Fifty sets were used to shoot from multiple angles and Proyas was inspired by German Expressionism, film noir and Metropolis. Beautifully filmed and packed with vivid yet gloomy imagery, it was part of an obsidian vein running through the decade. Unlike the director's earlier movie, The Crow, Dark City is not a comic adaptation but feels in keeping with the edgier books which were popular (and the films they inspired), such as The Dark Night Returns and Spawn, in the late 80s and 90s.

Like the Matrix, which was released a year later in 1999, Dark City explores the anxieties which had been bubbling away throughout the historically calm post-cold war period. Both movies' villains are terrifyingly inhuman external forces, who clandestinely manipulate humanity. Its moody visuals and shadowy streets reflected Generation X’s cynicism, while the Strangers could be seen as the manifestation of their insecurities growing up in the tumultuous 70s and being overshadowed by the wealthier Baby Boomers who proceeded them. The film asks who’s in charge of humanity but also explains why we deserve self-determination. The solution is simple: we’re much more than our memories and experiences. This is illustrated by a telling early scene when Murdoch, who has just awoken suffering amnesia, saves a goldfish from dying in an act of simple kindness.

Richard O'Brien (Rocky Horror Picture Show and Crystal Maze) as Mr Hand in Dark City, which is directed by Alex Proyas.
Creepy: Mr Hand (Richard O'Brien) pursues John Murdoch in Dark City.

In contrast, the ‘Strangers’ moral vacuum is embodied by Mr Hand, who pursues Murdoch relentlessly and is infused with creepy credence by Richard O’Brien (Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Crystal Maze) in a rare screen outing. Dark City's strong cast included Kiefer Sutherland, who channelled Peter Lorre and Donald Pleasance, while William Hurt and Jennifer Connelly gave disconnected performances which represented the dislocation suffered by the city’s confused cohort. Cult actor Bruce Spence, who has appeared in Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Matrix and Mad Max, also graced the movie in a cameo.

Proyas wrote the story in 1990 and then worked with Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer to polish up the final script but the film suffered from studio meddling, a delayed release in 1998 and failed to light up the box office. Despite these setbacks it quickly attracted ardent fans, like myself, who were entranced by the intriguing premise, stylish visuals and philosophical musings. Legendary critic Roger Ebert hailed the noirish mystery as one of the films of the year and would go on to record a commentary. Even though it’s the quintessential 90’s movie in many ways, Dark City’s exploration of human nature and classic design, which harks back to cinema’s golden age, has given it an enduring timelessness.

Further Reading

  • An insightful excerpt from Roger Ebert’s commentary of Dark City.

  • A really interesting interview with Alex Proyas on cinema website, Money Into Light. Part 1 is here and part 2 here.

  • A piece examining Generation X’s paranoia and fears in the 1990s.

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