10ish (Belated) Mixed Up Thoughts About Dark City



Film Noir vs. Sci-Fi, not Sci-Noir

My friend @meckett (a living, breathing example of the lovely statement that "facebook is for keeping in touch with people you used to be friends with, while twitter lets you get to know people you really ought to be friends with") argued that the film did sci-fi and noir very well separately, but failed to integrate the two styles.

I sort of see his point; that action scene in the last half hour, while endearingly silly, did seem like a very obvious 'studio add-on' to a film that was much better structured as a noir. (Even the strangers, despite being not-quite human, fit in better as an expression of noir language than science fiction language. This is probably because there is absolutely no attempt to explain the "real facts" that lie behind the story; i.e. what has happened to humanity, who are these aliens, how does their 'tuning' work?)

However, I feel that this discussion is better served if we ignore that silly action scene. WIthout that strange psy-fight, the sci-fi elements were much more subtly drawn in; they were used to create atmosphere (why is there no sun, and why does no one notice? What's the deal with homme fatale Dr. Mengele aka Jack Bauer?).

More importantly, each of the elements contribute to the story; each has a specific purpose by the end. Everything that's wrong, that's odd, that's strange, is a direct result of the Strangers' failure to understand the core of humanity.

The Action Scenes are Profoundly Gilliam-Esque

That said, while the action scenes are completely extraneous, at least they're not boring. There's something curiously retro about how the psy-fight was conducted; Rufus Sewell and Mr. Hand literally stare each other into submission, while the entire world reforms itself around them.

Curiously Satisfying Ending

The ending is wonderful precisely because it undercut everyone's expectations (we all thought John wimped out to build Shell Beach, but he creates something far more sinister in many ways).

John has the power to create the world in whatever image he chooses, and hero tropes would dictate two possible options:

  1. He becomes megalomaniacal, consumed by his newfound power.
  2. He does what he can to return the populous to their 'original state,' the Locke-ian, Christian ending, returning humanity to their naive state so they can start fresh, avoiding the fruit of the poison tree.

But instead, he chooses option 3, wherein he does return some beauty to the world, but still leaves it absolutely clear where they are, that they're living in an illusion.

Successful Narrative

It really shouldn't, but the narrative somehow works. Maybe because the film doesn't try to make some definitive statement about what makes a human human (though it veers dangerously close), and instead leaves us with this odd think-piece of what aliens might do to discover where our essential humanity comes from. It's quite powerful, given how often we're fed the bit about our lives being nothing more than the sum of our memories; it's a foregone conclusion in so many sci-fi films. When the memories are entirely false, then what's left?

I Miss Miniature Modelling

CGI is so much better when grounded in realistic models. The sets in Dark City are absolutely stunning, and the movement of the buildings when the city was 'tuned' was gorgeous to watch (Cobweb Diamond admitted it was done better than in Inception, and she'd never say anything bad about Inception).

On Secret Superhero Narratives

There is clearly some superhero influence here, very understated, but justified by certain events.

A Rose By Any Other Name...

The names of the Strangers make perfect sense; they are a collective mind, so they divide themselves on what they perceive to be the unique attributes of humanity: face, sleep, hand, glove, etc. Notice there's no one named emotion, or love, or fear. To them, humanity is nothing more than a sum of physical processes, mixed with memory.

On Rewatchability

This is one of those special movies that actually improves on rewatch. There's no sleight of hand, all the answers are before us if we choose to recognize them. Nothing is so obvious that your hand is tipped too son.

The Connelly Factor

How cute is Jennifer Connelly in between chubby teenager and svelte sexpot? She still has the baby fat and the curves, and looks amazing.

Separately, Connelly has made one cult classic sci-fi/fantasy film in the 1980's, and one in the 1990's. Nothing in the 2000's, so she has a lot to make up for!

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2 Responses to “ 10ish (Belated) Mixed Up Thoughts About Dark City ”

  1. DARK CITY is a favorite of mine. There was a time in which I thought Alex Proyas was, like David Fincher, going to be one of our leading auteurs. His more recent films have disproved that hypothesis. However, I feel that I must reject your take on pegging DARK CITY's genre. Seeing as how the city operates as simulacrum, should not the movie (especially the ending) be viewed that way? I see DARK CITY working in the tradition of Kafka and Borges rather than noir or science fiction. If you accept the gorgeous aesthetic as the skin of genre, I think you'll find the movie to be more rewarding and the ending, seemingly silly, to be more rewarding.

  2. Don't get me wrong, I love the movie as well! Hence its re-watchability.

    Do you ever watch or read something and just know that it's not perfect, but still want to push it on everyone you know just because it's interesting? That's how I feel about Dark City. It's not different for the sake of different, but it has something to say that's unique.

    I would indeed like to believe that the aesthetic is the representation of genre, but that would be a sensibility more common to sci-fi/fantasy as it is produced today than to the mid-90s (The Matrix, Blade and so on). Dark City is very much ahead of its time, in that it's not trapped by genre, but instead uses genre to tell a more universal tale (like Eternal Sunshine, or Moon).

    And it also happens to be beautiful!

    I should state on the record that I love the ending, for all the reasons stated above and more. I love the man that Rufus Sewell's character is: he accepts both the false reality and the true reality, and can actually handle both in his mind. Like a true philosopher.

    I see what you mean about it being a Kafka-esque tale, there are thematic similarities to both Metamorphoses and The Castle. I don't know why I didn't make that connection. Perhaps Kafka is not someone you read and visualize instantly (although what on earth is more visual than a man waking up as a giant bug?!?).

    It's a shame about Proyas though, as The Crow is another favorite of mine (although that one is definitely more of a guilty pleasure!) Here's hoping for a late career revival, with movies that do not star Nic Cage.


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