I am necessarily skeptical of lavish praise for films that do not maintain a strict artistic agenda, and I am even more dubious about those praised almost exclusively for their visual effect. Most of these effects, you will understand, are just that – effects. Nothing real was filmed; nothing was experienced between actor and director; nothing was improvised, natural, or granted an opportunity to fail. That is the inherent shortcoming of all films which lean heavily on computer-generated imagery, as well as the one very good reason why video games in any way, shape, or form have never appealed to me. Their graphics are extraordinary, although we may admire such advances for but a few awestruck moments until we realize that what we are watching is even less real than a dream. Dreams are so real that we may remember something in our waking hours, something impossible, such as the return of childhood or a lost love, and understand that this is the memory of last night's pandemonium. An excellent way to bring us to this iconic film.
The setup is boilerplate noir: a young man (Rufus Sewell) awakes in a bathtub not knowing his name or his past. Above him a swinging light bulb suggests he may just have missed someone who could have helped to unlock those mysteries. As he rises and instinctively clothes himself (we are all quite bourgeois upon waking), he finds beside him the body of a young woman slain in what can be loosely termed a ritual manner, or at least by someone who was trying to do more than just kill her. Our protagonist lurches on tangled in webs of memories – a woman, affection, bloodletting, some other women, and innumerable flashes of scenes of chiaroscuro. He finds in short order that he cannot explain any of this, but perhaps this task will ultimately devolve to us. And after dressing in the clothes available and leaving the apartment (with doubts about his ownership of both), he then proceeds down that well-worn path of discovering himself even if this involves accepting his murderous psychosis. As he puzzles out meanings in his new realm he is immediately taken by a postcard for a place called Shell Beach. This is one of the many generic toponyms that do not reduce the significance of what is occurring into allegory so much as suggest that the namers do not quite know what is a cliché and what isn't. How could anyone who speaks English as a native language, as all the characters in Dark City seem to do, not comprehend the banality of such nomenclature? Two reasons surface to explain this dissonance: those who named these places are alien to the world that contains them, and this world is a trap.
In time we and our protagonist become fairly sure that his name is John Murdoch. He traces his life to his wife Emma (a chubby-cheeked Jennifer Connelly), a torch singer whose recent extramarital activity may have incited him to start murdering those for whom promiscuity pays the bills. Murdoch also locates a limping doctor by the name of Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) – a namesake of one of the most notorious of all clinical patients – and a tall, handsome, and rather befuddled detective called Bumstead (William Hurt), a name which will remind some of us of an old comic strip. These four characters, representing in no coincidence the heroism, passion, science, and intuition of a tragedy, will interact and intertwine in the usual series of half-misunderstood episodes, and each encounter will add a line to our own transcript of what precisely makes the City tick. We suspect we know the tickers already. They are very probably that menacing, roving trenchcoated band known as the Strangers since they seem to be the only ones with any degree of autonomy, and exhibit a morbid interest in the fate of John Murdoch. Who or what they are does not need to be explained here; suffice it to say that in appearance they resemble an eerie hybrid of this film's species (if that is really the right word) with the wardrobe of this film's murderer. When midnight strikes – as if one could really measure a middle to this perpetual darkness – the Strangers gather in a subterranean vault that will also remind the thoughtful viewer of M.'s cavern of confrontation and set in motion a giant machine that resembles a human face. The result is an altered surface world, in which all the beings that dwell therein are lulled into deepest slumber, at which point the Strangers decide, almost haphazardly by all indications, that the surface-dwellers' existence should change. To this end they enlist the good Dr. Schreber, who happens to be very handy with a vast arsenal of needles and potions.
Most reviews would now proceed to comment on the why and how of the city's machinations, but that would be giving too much away. Are there profound philosophical questions to be pondered? There are indeed; and yet the aim of the plot's structure, which is plain if ingenious in its plainness, allows us to consider only four. What is the nature of memory, that is to say, why do we remember? Are our personalities constructed upon what we remember or what we believe? How can we be sure that what we remembered actually happened to us, or at least whether it happened to us in exactly the way we think we remember (a corollary would be why do we sometimes recall the same event from two or more different points of view)? And finally, what does our interaction in the slowly dissipating "present reality" do to our memories, does it enhance or detract from them? These are certainly fascinating queries that will, in all likelihood, remain for all of history unanswerable. Dark City does not want to answer them; indeed, its reluctance to do so is one of its most redemptive characteristics. Yet it provides us with a scenario in which each is in fact answered intelligently and coherently, without aggregate simplification, a scenario that accounts for the Strangers, for Emma, for Schreber and Bumstead, and even for most of John Murdoch.
Why is Dark City better than similarly styled works about reality and unreality? Because unlike some much-ballyhooed vehicles which are really just pulp with choreographed fighting (one of cinema's most hideous additaments) and desperate lunges at philosophy about as profound as a contact lens, Dark City faithfully orchestrates a nightmare based on a few old German movies from the 1920s and then maybe this perplexing classic. The texture, and here I echo literally dozens of critics, is so palpable and seamless as to seem realer than reality, which is exactly the sensation of our worst nightmares when we are still in their thrall. There are so many wonderful moments – a scene in which water seems to spill into outer space and yet still accumulate, the look that Murdoch gives one particularly devastating lady of the night before making a crucial decision, the first glimpse at Shell Beach as it resonates in Murdoch's memory, one couple's gentrification literally overnight – that we fairly swoon at the craftsmanship. At length one unbelievable shot towards the end of our tale will eclipse all other shots and all other ideas, and when it first appears, it quickly becomes one of the most breathtaking in the history of cinema. You will know what I mean, and you will gasp in aesthetic awe if you haven't already guessed the secret of the eternal night and how it may be conquered. Quod nulla nux interpolet, fideque jugi luceat.