A Gothic-noir-science-fiction-psychological-crime-drama, with profound subtext? As is so often the case with films that bravely weld together different genres, creating a fresh fusion, Dark City confounded distributors and audiences alike back in 1998. It’s one of the most misunderstood movies of the 1990s. But there were some, including a handful of perceptive critics, who recognised it as one of the most original productions of the decade, and it has been building a devout cult following ever since.
Dark City has been justly compared to Blade Runner (1982), and surely drew visual inspiration from common sources including classics of German expressionist cinema such as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and, most obviously, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Like Blade Runner, it’s setting is a gloomy urban labyrinth of deep dark streets, where it seems to be permanently nighttime—but by contrast, and rather conspicuously, it never rains in this dark city. Both films tackle the same philosophical questions: are we merely the sum of our memories? If we lose our memory, do we lose our self, or is there another intrinsic component that makes us who we are?
As with many movies that ask their audiences to think, test screenings for Dark City didn’t go very well. Audiences were baffled by the enigmatic first act and lost interest before answers started to arrive. So, just as with Blade Runner, the executives at New Line Cinema insisted that a voiceover was added to make things clearer. So, in the opening minutes, the voice of Dr. Daniel P. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) tells us, straight-up, that it’s all down to a bunch of aliens called the Strangers.
Although Dark City would certainly appeal to the Blade Runner crowd, for me, a more significant cinematic precursor, in mood and narrative style, would be Angel Heart (1987). Both explore shifting identity and the correlation between memories and the human soul, and take stylistic cues from noir detective movies. They also have central characters called ‘Johnny’, who seem to be followed by a trail of murders that implicate them, though Dark City certainly turns out to be the more optimistic of the two!
We first meet John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) as he stumbles naked from a bath and practically trips over the carved-up corpse of a woman. He seems completely confused and disorientated, and we soon learn that he has no recollection of who the murder victim is, how he came to be in the same apartment, or indeed who he is! Thinking quickly, he disposes of his suitcase and anything that could link him to the crime scene.
Wandering the night streets, Murdoch’s inexplicably drawn to an all-night diner where his wallet, which he apparently left there the previous evening, is returned to him. The information in the wallet is a mismatch to the personal effects he just got rid of. So, the stage is set for a delicious whodunnit mystery, with a great shock reveal. Or it would be if we hadn’t already been told about the aliens!
Speaking of stages and sets, the entire world of Dark City was purpose-built as one huge, self-contained sound stage. In his debut feature The Crow (1994), writer-director Alex Proyas had tested the idea of a large set, made to look even bigger by rearranging walls and rooftops between shots. Here, he takes it to a whole new level with what was, by far, the biggest set ever constructed in Australia. The design mixes together different eras. Unusually for science fiction it draws a lot from the past, with classic cars and 1940s styles conjuring the timeless atmosphere found in the ‘Americana paintings’ of Edward Hopper.
With careful lighting, along with a seamless marriage of mechanical and digital effects, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski evokes an effectively immersive atmosphere. Like Proyas, he’d cut his teeth on music videos (for the likes of Suzanne Vega, Tom Petty, and The Bangles) and had already proved himself in cinema with Romeo is Bleeding (1993). He has since gone on to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and his more recent work can be appreciated in The Martian (2015) and Alien: Covenant (2017). He had worked with Proyas on The Crow, and the legacy of their shared background in promo videos can be seen throughout Dark City. With an average shot length of around 2 seconds, it remains one of the most rapidly cut narrative films and demands a high level of visual literacy from the viewer.
By 1990, Proyas had been doing very well directing pop videos for MTV and felt ready to make his move into feature films. He’d already written a script for Dark City and began touting it around Hollywood, to no avail. Everyone who glanced at it found it far too confusing, but producer Ed Pressman recognised enough potential to offer him The Crow. He proved to be the perfect choice and his adaptation of the cult comic-book was soon receiving favourable reviews and breaking through to the mainstream. The Crow was enough of a hit to spawn several sequels, but Proyas wanted to move on and make something original. After the success of The Crow, he found people were more willing to take a chance on his Dark City screenplay.
Proyas was clearly inspired by the Nova trilogy of novels by William S. Burroughs, particularly The Ticket that Exploded (1962), which is set within a revolving and shifting constructed world, where trapdoors and chutes connect numerous false realities and timezones. Humans and aliens are manipulated by the Nova Mob, an extra-terrestrial gang, using any-and-all means available to them including drugs, hypnosis, surgery, and language to destroy entire cultures. It’s a Burroughs story, so who can really say what’s going on, but its sense of deep paranoia and identity crisis is effectively evoked in Dark City.
There is also a marked parallel between Dr. Schreber and the character of Doc Benway, who recurs in many Burroughs novels. The name, Daniel P. Schreber, is directly lifted from a real psychiatric case that had been of great interest to Burroughs, as well as to the father of modern psychology, Dr. Sigmund Freud, and became one of the earliest documented cases of what we now call paranoid schizophrenia.
Apparently, his first draft was very Burroughsesque. Even Proyas admitted it was a tad too dark and confusing, and so he brought in Lem Dobbs to develop it for the screen. Dobbs had just written Kafka (1991), which explains why the final version is also very Kafkaesque! Let me tell you, Burroughs plus Kafka is a heady mix. In his treatment, there was still much mystery and only when the film’s cast was confirmed, pulling in a larger budget, was David S. Goyer brought in as the third writer.
Goyer introduced most of the effects-laden action sequences, which have since been criticised as incongruous. Those critics do have a point, but the sequences are necessary to fully tell the story and bring more mainstream appeal to what could easily have been a sombre arthouse film. Having said that, it’s the spectacular finale in which Murdoch does psychic battle with the Strangers that most dates the production and also invites comparison with The Matrix (1999).
The obvious visual and conceptual similarities between Dark City and The Matrix have been widely acknowledged. Interestingly, Andrew Mason, was a producer on both and, according to Proyas, the Wachowski Brothers attended a screening of Dark City in the summer of 1997, well before they began filming The Matrix. So, it’s reasonable to assume the similarities between these two films aren’t purely coincidental.
It’s no wonder the cast engendered confidence with investors. Rufus Sewell, may not have been A-list at the time, but he’s thoroughly compelling in a rather complex and multi-layered lead role, which is lucky as we spend most of our screen time with him. He’s joined by Jennifer Connelly as Emma, who’s purportedly Murdoch’s wife. Always captivating, Connelly was already a genre fan-favourite and earning a reputation as a versatile actress. Here she plays a deeply emotional role with admirable restraint and subtlety, three years before the industry would applaud her with a string of accolades including an Oscar, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe, for her part in A Beautiful Mind (2001). William Hurt seems to have taken cues from her and is also engrossingly understated as Police Inspector Frank Bumstead—he can convey so much with a simple sidelong glance. Then we have Keifer Sutherland playing Dr. Schreber with ingenious ambiguity until he gradually veers towards the heroic.
We know we’re in safe hands with Ian Richardson as the archvillain, Mr. Book. He relishes the role and his Shakespearean background shines through. Although Richard O’Brien may not have the same reputation or classical stature as an actor, he’s superb as Mr. Hand, one of the Strangers imprinted with the mind of a murderer to more effectively track down Murdoch. Apparently, Alex Proyas wrote the part with him in mind from the start.
When not disguised in their long coats, dark suits and hats, the cadaverous Strangers seem to have been taking fashion tips from the Cenobites of Hellraiser (1987). They also have a neat line in levitation and it seems some of their cousins make a special appearance in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Hush” (1999). It’s one of the scariest and most respected episodes and features similarly bloodless men, also wearing dark suits and carrying Gladstone bags, who levitate and drift through the silent streets of night.
Dark City certainly exerted a significant influence that still ripples through genre filmmaking. It was very ambitious—a huge production in every respect, except budget, delivering great value for money at well under half the cost of The Matrix the following year. American uber-critic Roger Ebert hailed it as the best film of 1998, later hosted a scene-by-scene appreciation at a festival, and then contributed an audio commentary for a DVD release of the Director’s Cut (which was more-or-less the same as the theatrical release, minus the voiceover). Ebert’s praise wasn’t much help at the box-office, where it performed rather poorly in the wake of James Cameron’s world-conquering Titanic (1997), only narrowly clawing back its $27 million budget.
Proyas took a break from L.A for a while and stayed in Australia to make coming-of-age comedy drama Garage Days (2002). He bounced back with another film exploring what it means to be human—an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (2004) with Will Smith and a budget five times that of Dark City. Although it was a box office hit, it seems that the Hollywood machine had lost some of its lustre for Proyas, who decided to continue his career in Australia where he made Knowing (2009). Starring Nicholas Cage, the sci-fi mystery received mixed reviews but was a success, hitting the number one spot in several territories.
Proyas was born in Egypt, but his family emigrated to Australia when he was a small boy. With his latest film, Gods of Egypt (2016), he connected to his ancestral roots, but despite some Harryhausen-esque Sinbad-style fun it was decried by most critics and caused controversy with a predominantly white cast playing Egyptian characters. It struggled to recoup its $140 million budget during its theatrical release. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I rather enjoyed the film—albeit after a few cocktails! Regardless, Alex Proyas can console himself that Dark City remains a ground-breaking cult classic and two decades on, it’s well worth revisiting.