Friday, November 13, 2009

Film Friday: Dark City (1998)

Today we take a look at an amazing and underrated science fiction flim: Dark City. Written and directed by Alex Proyas (The Crow, I, Robot), Dark City is a combination film-noir crime story and creepy, shocking science fiction story, which explores what makes us who we are. If you haven’t seen Dark City, you should. You should also check out Roger Ebert's commentary on the DVD -- it will give you a whole new level of respect for the film, for filmmaking as a craft, and even for Ebert's knowledge of films.

** spoiler alert **

One of the things that makes science fiction so great compared to other genres is its ability to ask truly deep philosophical questions without becoming a dry dissertation. Indeed, unlike most genres, science fiction can weave these questions seamlessly into storylines and use fantastic devices, creatures, or environments to play out the possibilities without ever losing the story element that people expect in entertainment. Dark City does this expertly. It also has a first rate plot, characters, and sets, plus its story moves quickly and surprisingly, and it keeps the viewer engaged from start to finish.

The Plot
Have you ever woken up next to the body of a dead hooker? John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) has. But did he kill her? As he struggles to wake up, the phone rings. He answers it. He is warned to run as men are coming for him. He flees. But Murdoch can’t remember who he is, and he’s haunted by images of a beach. We soon meet Murdoch’s wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) and police detective Bumstead (William Hurt), who is tracking Murdoch. But things are not right with them either. This case doesn't add up to Bumstead, but he can’t put his finger on why. The detective who worked the case before him has gone insane.

As the story unfolds, we learn that the world is not what it seems. It is always night. At midnight, everyone falls asleep -- except for Murdoch and the very strange Dr. Schreber (Keifer Sutherland), the man who warned John to flee. While they sleep, the city changes around them. Buildings expand or shrink. And a group of dark leather clad albinos (the Strangers) roam the city, and with the help of Schreber, inject people with a strange mixture. When the people awake, they have new lives -- new jobs, new families, new memories.

We soon learn the city is a sort of lab. The Strangers are manipulating people’s lives in an attempt to understand the human soul. To that end, they are mixing people’s personalities, their emotions, and their lives, and monitoring the results. Murdoch, who seems to have some of the powers possessed by the Strangers, is the only one who can stop them.
Are We Ourselves?
Beyond the plot itself, Dark City explores the question of what makes us who we are? Most of us think we know who we are, but do we really? Are we the product of our memories or are we something more? Are you sure? What would happen if the next time you woke up, you no longer had your memories, would you be the same person or would someone new emerge? What if rather than having no memories, you had someone else’s memories? Would you become that person?

Dark City delves into this question head on. Night after night, the Strangers mix people’s memories, adding a little of this to a little to that. One day you’re a bank President, the next you’re a cop. One day you have a family, the next you’ve always been single. This process is called “imprinting.” As the story develops, Murdoch and Bumstead learn about the imprinting. They realize that nothing they know is true, i.e. all their memories are fake. Indeed, they know nothing at all. They don’t know where they are, what year it is, or who they are. Even their families are not really their families.

Bumstead is a cop. . . or is he? He has no idea who he was the day before last, or the one before that, or before that. And now that he knows this, is he still a cop just because he was a cop when he realized the truth? He acts that way. In fact, despite suddenly realizing that the whole world is fake, he continues to act in the exact way he's been programmed. Perhaps that's the only way for him to remain sane? Murdoch wakes up next to the dead hooker, holding a bloody knife. Did he kill her? He doesn't actually know. But does it matter since he was given the motivation to kill her? Does that make him a killer or just a tool? And is there a difference?

Interestingly, when Murdoch learns that his memories have all been implanted, he consciously rejects those memories because he knows they are fake. BUT, he clings to one memory in particular from “his” youth. This memory, of a beach, obsesses him -- even though he has no way to know if it’s any more real than the other memories (and likely isn’t). He also finds himself drawn to Emma, even though she is not really his wife. Thus, on the one hand, he consciously rejects the idea that he has become what the Strangers made him, i.e. he rejects the idea that his memories make him who he is and he claims to have the power to define himself, BUT he ultimately builds his new life upon foundations that the Strangers put in place and thereby proves that he remains a prisoner of those memories.

And that gets us to the take away question from the film. Are we simply a collection of the things we've learned and experienced, or are we something separate and apart? If you took away those memories and experiences would we still be us or would be become someone new? Oh, and lest you think this question is just a theoretical musing, it is worth noting that science is catching up to science fiction. Not only has it become apparent that you can plant memories in people, but science developed a pill that wipes out specific memories.

Perhaps the world of Dark City isn’t as far off as it seems?

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15 comments:

Writer X said...

I seem to recall watching this movie. Maybe when I was someone else? ;-) Must rewatch it.

Love all the story questions about what defines us. This sort of reminds me of a more high-tech (and not quite so campy) Twilight Zone. My kinda movie. You're right about science fiction, too. You can get away with so much more because you can effectively create your own world. Very cool.

Great review!

Di said...

This film is one of my husband's favorites, along with Bladerunner(which deals with many of the same issues). I think that we are, to a large extent, products of our memories and experiences. However, I believe that we have a core self that really determines who we are, and that self is hard to change regardless of circumstances or memories, and informs how we respond to our experiences.

AndrewPrice said...

Thank X, Glad you liked it! I completely agree about science fiction. Science fiction lets you address all kinds of neat issues because you aren't limited to the world we know.

You can also disguise so much through the clever use of characters and environments that act as metaphors for real world issues, so you can create a story that is both deep and thoughtful, but also can be taken as just sheer entertainment.

Few other genres give you the same ability.

AndrewPrice said...

Di, I want to believe that there is a core to me that is the real me, regardless of environment or memories. In other words, I would like to think that I'm the same person even if I was born in a different family, a different time, or a different culture.

But a lot of what we're seeing in science today does make me wonder -- particularly the total personality changes they can cause with certain medications now. That's creepy stuff!

StanH said...

"Dark City" is cool sci-fi, but at times a bit dark for me, no pun intended. There are no real winners, and I found it hard to really pull for anyone. It has a “Twelve Monkeys” vibe with a dose of “Ground Hog Day.” But if it’s your cup of tea, good review!

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, A lot of people have compared Dark City to The Matrix because of the similar themes, except that The Matrix goes much deeper. I've been waiting to write a review of The Matrix until I get a week or two to plan it, because there's so much going on -- people have written dissertations on it.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: I watched it once, and didn't entirely "get it." The second time, things started to fall into place. The third time, I was hooked. As StanH said, I saw some of "Twelve Monkeys" in it, but it was ever more layered than that. I'm not usually that slow to pick up what's going on, but this was a very complicated movie.

ScottDS said...

I saw this movie once five years ago (both by itself and with Ebert's commentary) and I recall enjoying it but I think I need to see it again. (Understatement of the year.)

Interestingly enough, this is one of three movies that feature Jennifer Connelly and pier imagery - the others being Requiem for a Dream and House of Sand and Fog.

As for the subtext of the film... I don't know. Like you, I'd like to believe there is some basic blueprint and everything we experience afterwards is simply adding to it... but take that all away and give me a different life, there might still be some constants.

To put it in another way, you know I'm a big Star Trek fan. But if I had grown up in a different household where my mom didn't introduce me to the show, is it possible I still would've become a Trek fan through some other means?

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, This wasn't an easy one because they don't spell much out for you. It takes a couple viewings to get what they are talking about just beneath the surface.

Glad you liked the movie though! Great minds, right?

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I too like to think that there is something within me that constitutes me core, but it is entirely possible there isn't.

If my parents had not taught me to be so inquisitive, would I value knowledge and thinking as much as I do? If I grew up in 1000 BC, would I still be me? I don't know. I think it's a fascinating question though.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: LOL. At least we're wise enough to admit that we don't always get it the first time around.

AndrewPrice said...

Wisdom comes in being unafraid to admit that we don't know everything. . . a fortune cookie taught me that!

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: Good to know we get our great wisdom from the same source. LOL

MegaTroll said...

Thanks for the review. I thought you'd stopped doing the films. I'm glad you didn't. Cool flick.

AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome Mega. I've been too busy to write these (they take a surprisingly large amount of time). So I can't guarantee I'll always get them done, but I will try.

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