Dark City (1998) — Dir. Alex Proyas (USA)
“Do you think of the past often, Inspector?”
“As much as the next man.”
Early on in Dark City, police inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) is hunting for our protagonist John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), whom he believes is a murderer. His response to fellow detective Walenski (Colin Friels) is casual and initially doesn’t sound like much, but carries a deeper, more sinister ring as the movie progresses. Proyas’ dystopian film is a gripping thriller that contains at its heart the question of how much of remembered history constitutes one’s identity. If you were told X happened years earlier, but cannot remember anything except fragments of Y, are you still who you think and claim to be?
As we follow Murdoch who thrusts us into a confused and disoriented metropolis of constant nighttime, we learn that he is being hunted. As if it weren’t bad enough to have no answers and only fragments of memories, our protagonist realizes his pursuers are not even human. Clothed in black and each sporting the same pale gaunt face are a species known as the Strangers, who we learn have constructed a grand experiment and transported the human race to a place known as the Dark City. What are they after? Why does time always stop at twelve-midnight and everyone immediately falls asleep? Why is Murdoch unaffected by this routine? Proyas teases us with these questions that repeatedly leave our protagonist’s mouth again and again, yet dutifully satisfies our curiosity through well-paced revelations and encounters.
An important character is psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), who is recruited by the Strangers to inject different memories into various sleeping human beings. As the film progresses, Murdoch realizes that the Strangers have programmed the city to fall asleep at midnight, allowing them to float out from underneath its surface to inject different people with new sets of memories, allowing this alien race to essentially rewrite entire histories and identities. There is a fantastic scene where a husband and wife fall asleep on their dinner plates in a dilapidated apartment; the Strangers and Dr. Schreber inject them with self-concocted vials of blue fluid (read: memory), and use their psychokinetic powers to reconstruct their residence into a mansion. When the city reawakens, the same man now dressed in a tuxedo instead of a grimy tank-top murmurs about some bourgeoisie issue that has occupied him. He remembers nothing of his past, and evidently acts as if he has been part of the 1% all his life (or all of five minutes).
This gets at the fascinating core of the film. The Strangers undertake this grand experiment for the purpose of “studying the human soul” and determining what really makes us human. We learn along with Murdoch that as a race, the Strangers are dying. Unlike us, each of them shares a collective memory — and that is the only reason we are given for their inevitable decay. Here, the communal ownership of the past irrevocably means soullessness and the incapacity for individual existence — which dooms the Strangers unless they can figure out whether there is a part of us and our unique memory-making faculties they can adopt. As for Murdoch, the plan was to see if, when awakening with the memories of a serial killer and seeing the manufactured environment around him — a bloody knife; a prostitute’s corpse; newspaper articles detailing his killing spree — our protagonist would assume the life of a sociopath. The Strangers meticulously prepared everything, and what sets the film in motion is the discovery that Murdoch is different — he can resist efforts to “imprint” someone else’s memories into him, and therefore finds himself sharing the same psychokinetic powers as our alien villains.
It is a lot to think about, especially when you realize that at one point many of the city’s inhabitants shared one another’s memories. Our police inspector has no idea that his inability to dredge up a single memory of the past is just like the next man; everyone’s minds have been shuffled so many times that all recollection of personal childhood — or frankly, if such thing as childhood ever even existed — is not something one thinks about in the Dark City. It raises interesting questions such as whether love can exist; Murdoch’s supposed wife is Emma (Jennifer Connelly), whom he realizes is another empty vessel who happened to be injected with the memory of marrying and loving a man named John Murdoch. There are many such eerie yet fascinating moments in Dark City that make you reconsider some really fundamental things about being human: does one love another person, or the idea of that person? Change or erase that idea, and have we redefined the meaning and significance of our affection, or hatred for others?
Proyas’ film does have its unpolished moments. Murdoch manages to wake up and throw off any attempt to imprint him: is this an inherent ability? One could conclude this act alone makes him superhuman…and yet the aforementioned detective Walenski underwent the same experience, waking up while he was being imprinted and thus also knows about the Strangers and their experiment. Instead of being another Murdoch who can create doors out of thin air and blast away opponents with his mind, Walenski goes insane and knows that the life he and everyone lives in is a nightmare, and only finds comfort in suicide. Dark City also features the excessively epic, manifest most clearly in the climactic face-off between Murdoch and the leader of the Strangers; during five minutes of metal-ripping, earth-splitting, and mind-dueling, the two fly and howl and hurl fantastic energies at one another. But we never figure out if the Dark City contains the entire human race, how it was built, and where the people came from. It is mentioned that the humans “came from somewhere,” but even Dr. Schreber cannot remember this one, since he was forced erase his mind of everything but his scientific knowledge.
Most important is what the Strangers intend to do when they capture Murdoch: inject their collective memory into him, thus incorporating his unique psychic makeup into their minds (which we assume will make them live forever). I won’t reveal how our protagonist fights back, but there is a little twist that fans of Nolan’s Inception will likely get a kick from. When the dust settles at the end of the film, how is someone like Murdoch — with knowledge of such a terrifying scheme to wipe humanity clean from all humans, and turn everyone into empty vessels — supposed to continue on? What can prevent him from just saving himself the grief and injecting a vial of the least disturbing mix of memories to free himself and forget? Would that have changed him from ‘John Murdoch’ into ‘New Person X’, or just ‘John Murdoch minus a significant chunk of himself’? One rich vein to mine in Proyas’ film is that one Stranger sent to hunt Murdoch bites the bullet and injects himself with the protagonist’s memories, with the hopes of more easily relocating the fugitive based on where he (thinks he) has been. Is the Stranger then one hundred percent John Murdoch — more so than even our hero?
Novelist Nabokov has a famous quotation that is apt for the conclusion of Dark City: “One is always at home in one’s past.” Putting his mind to it, Murdoch turns the wheels of the city in the way he sees fit, (re)building key venues that repeatedly crop up in his memories. We can’t blame him for this action, though detractors of the film’s ending may protest some wish-washy elements. But in the end, Murdoch chooses not to mind, and come to think of it, that’s all that matters.