(Director's Cut). Directed by Alex Proyas. US. 1998.

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Delving into areas to be explored later in The Matrix and The Truman Show, Alex Proyas’ 1998 film Dark City examines whether what we call reality is in fact an objective physical presence existing in time and space or simply a simulacrum devised by our own minds or the minds of others. Like The Matrix, Dark City succeeds as both a visually striking and atmospheric science fiction thriller and an inquiry into the subjective nature of memory. Far from being cold or soulless as some critics have claimed, we identify with the characters and their desire to restore truth and beauty to a world grown dark and dead. Though initially unsuccessful, it has been championed by Roger Ebert and others as a cult classic and has been recently released on a Director’s Cut DVD that adds eleven minutes to the theatrical release and eliminates the opening narration. 

While The Matrix posed the question, how do we know what is real and what is a dream? Dark City asks – are we more than just the sum of our experiences? Is the “I” that we know simply the sum of our memories or something vastly different? In both films, one character tries to hold onto something tangibly real while the world around him shapes and shifts. Both films agree that if our reality is a simulation, like lucid dreamers who learn to exert control on the illusory world of their dreams, we have untapped abilities to manipulate the illusion but must be trained to recognize and perfect our powers. 

Co-written by Proyas and David S. Goyer, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakes in a bathtub in a seedy hotel room in a city bathed in perpetual darkness, but has no conscious memory of who he is and how he got there. The only thing he learns is that he is a suspect in a string of murders of prostitutes and is being pursued by the police, particularly Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt) and is being given advice by a strange doctor, Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) who talks in short, choppy sentences, as if he just ran the New York Marathon. Also hot on his tail are mysterious “strangers” who look like the trench coat mafia and have the ability to rearrange the memories in people’s lives as easily as remodeling one’s apartment, placing the entire city in “sleep mode” every midnight while they manipulate people’s lives and the look and feel of the city. 

One sequence is particular in which a working class couple awakes to a lavish dining room complete with chandeliers and a long dining table as if nothing has happened is quite extraordinary. Discovering that he is the only person unaffected by the aliens’ powers and actually shares some of their “tuning” abilities, Murdoch sets out to reconstruct vague memories of his wife Anna (Jennifer Connolly), a night club singer who comes to his support and a place called Shell Beach where he is alleged to have grown up as a boy. As he tries to make sense of his situation, Murdoch discovers that the aliens efforts to transplant people’s memories is an attempt to discover the “soul” that makes human beings tick and incorporate it into their dying world. 

Dark City updates the film noir tradition, creating a sepia-toned city of 1940s style architecture with dim-lit cafes, retro movie theaters, and a world of dark alleys, a quiet city where in the words of Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, “nothing stirs, has never stirred, will never stir...” Murdoch, like Molloy, must discover if there is any “possible end to these wastes where the light never was, nor any upright thing, nor any true foundation, but only these leaning things, forever lapsing and crumbling away, beneath a sky without memory of morning or hope of night.”  Only when he learns the true nature of reality and his ability to control it can he undertake a battle for the city and for his dream that Shell Beach can become more than a picture postcard.


Note: The director's cut menu offers three expanded commentary tracks—by Proyas, by Dobbs and Goyer, and by Ebert. In each instance, elements of their original commentaries are merged with new material. There is also a text-based fact track that highlights the differences between the two cuts of the film, though it also offers some random anecdotes about the movie. Three featurettes—"Introduction by Alex Proyas," "Memories of Shell Beach," and "Architecture of Dreams"—form a lengthy and informative making-of documentary when you select the "Play All" option. Finally, there's a good production gallery with photographs taken by Sewell.

Howard Schumann
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