I stumbled into the late-90s sci-fi curio Dark City with the best contextual background info possible: none. I picked up a used DVD copy of its Director’s Cut from a cat-rescue thrift store in Metairie, knowing only that it’s a divisive work from a director I don’t typically care for: Alex Proyas (Gods of Egypt, The Crow). I didn’t even know what decade the film was initially released in, assuming that it must have arrived at least five years later than it had – if not twice that. In retrospect, it was incredibly rude of this shameless decade-late Matrix rip-off to arrive a year before The Matrix, further confusing my understanding of what I had watched. Dark City is an infinitely faceted mystery. It initially establishes the mystery of what’s even happening in its futurist-noir plot, something that doesn’t become fully apparent until a third of the way into its runtime. Once its worldbuilding cards are all on the table, the questions only snowball: How is this much parallel thinking with other sci-fi works of its era even possible? Is it a masterful work of speculative fiction or just a fascinating mess? How did Proyas, of all people, stumble into creating something so worthy of continued personal interpretation & debatr? These mysteries are best experienced in a contextual vacuum, a self-discovery blind-watch. In other words, you should not be reading this review if you haven’t already seen the film for yourself.
Oddly, the audiences least equipped to see Dark City with the necessary blank slate were the people who caught it during its initial theatrical run back in 1998. At producers’ insistence, the initial theatrical cut of the film opened with a narration track that spoiled the central mystery of its sci-fi premise – dumping key information that’s carefully trickled out in the Director’s Cut with one intense flood. I’m genuinely glad I waited the twenty years necessary for the film to find me in the wild, rather than jumping on it in a time when it was less special and, apparently, self-spoiled. Whereas Dark City feels like a bizarro anomaly in retrospect, it was a victim of a crowded field of parallel-thinkers in the late-90s. Remarkably similar titles like eXistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor, and The Matrix (a movie that, like Dark City, was curiously an American-Australian co-production) were all released within a year of Proyas’s curio. It’s tempting to blame Dark City‘s financial failures on New Line Cinema’s decision to open it on the same weekend as James Cameron’s cultural behemoth The Titanic, but the truth is that only one of these films succeeded in their time, regardless of their opening-weekend competition. Contemporary audiences seemingly only had the capacity to love one simulated-reality sci-fi spectacle in that era, allowing the test of time to sort out the rest to varying results – eXistenZ rules as a video game era update to Videodrome; The Thirteenth Floor is a “You Had to Be There” snoozer; and Dark City is a confounding headscratcher that’s equal parts glaringly Flawed and mesmerizingly Ambitious.
If you haven’t guessed by all this repetitive Matrix referencing, this is a science-fiction film about simulated reality. Whereas the Wachowskis approached that topic through a cyberpunk lens, however, Proyas dialed the genre clock back to 1940s noir. The titular Dark City looks like a physical recreation of Gotham City as it appears in Batman: The Animated Series. Only, the towering metropolis shifts & reconfigures like a malfunctioning Rubik’s Cube, controlled by an unseen force that only reveals itself to the audience once they lose control of the game. The characters shift around just as easily as the buildings. That’s because an alien race known only as The Strangers have abducted an entire city-sized population of human beings and quarantined them in a human-scale rat maze, a closed-off city with no exits. Their experiments on human behavior are hinged on nightly resets where The Strangers transplant memories from one human test subject to another, reassigning different personalities & roles to arbitrarily selected specimens as if they were a rotating theatre company cast instead of “real” people. The goal of the experiment appears to be settling the Nature vs. Nurture debate, determining whether a person’s life path is defined by their lived experiences or their set-in-stone soul. The undoing of the rat maze simulation is very similar to the one in The Matrix: one of the rats gains the seemingly magic ability to alter the physical environment that contains him, becoming just as powerful as his captors, if not more so. We watch a confused protagonist start off as a Hitchcockian archetype who’s wrongly accused of murder discover an even greater mystery in the effort to clear his name: Nothing is real.
Since it understandably takes a while for this high-concept premise to fully reveal itself (at least in its narration-free Director’s Cut), Dark City‘s strongest asset is its creepy mood. Not only does it borrow the late-hour, back-alley atmosphere from the noir genre, it pushes that stylistic influence to the point where the only sunlight depicted onscreen is in billboard advertisements. Characters half-remember sunlight being A Thing, just like they remember trains that actually leave the city and childhoods that were entirely fabricated by The Strangers. Watching them grapple with the slow realization that everything they see & know is Fake is genuinely disturbing, no matter how many times that theme was echoed in similar contemporary works. It helps that The Strangers themselves make for deeply creepy foes, chattering their teeth when agitated and dressing up like Nosferatu G-Men. Those alien super-creeps are maybe the only truly idiosyncratic element at play visually, as the film blatantly borrows a lot of influence from the production design of preceding works like Brazil & City of Lost Children. Dark City mostly distinguishes itself in how its familiar noir archetype characters and retro-futurist cityscapes shift around—both physically and spiritually—into chaotic, unstable configurations. It’s a continuous sensation of having the rug pulled from under you as you attempt to get a sturdy footing in established, solid reality. That sensation has its thematic justifications rooted in an Early Internet era when online personae & communication were starting to supplant The Real Thing, which might explain why so many of these simulated-reality sci-fi pictures all arrived in the same year. More importantly, it’s effectively creepy, at least enough so to carry you through the mystery of its plot.
Unfortunately, I can’t quite match the enthusiasm of Dark City‘s most emphatic defenders (most significantly Roger Ebert, who repeatedly declared the flop his favorite film of 1998). Besides suffering the same Macho misinterpretation of noir that most of the genre’s throwbacks perpetrate (sidelining Jennifer Connelly of all people and mostly casting women as half-naked prostitute corpses), the movie also makes a major mistake in how it unravels the rat-maze experiment of its premise. I don’t know that I needed a fatalistic worldview where there’s no escape from The Strangers’ wicked manipulations of their victims’ memories, but that option certainly would have fit the mood of the piece better than transforming its running-from-the-law protagonist into a Chosen One superhero archetype. The more our amnesiac anti-hero uses his newfound superpowers to bend his rat-maze surroundings to his will (materializing doorways in brick walls, shaping the geography of the buildings to his convenience, fighting off The Strangers with his Professor X mind powers, etc.), the more they deflate the film’s creepy mood. It doesn’t at all help that Dark City accurately predicted the very worst impulses of the 2000s-2010s superhero blockbuster in its abrupt climactic battle, where our hero squares off against the top Stranger in mind-powers combat while the city crumbles around them in shoddy CGI. This genre shift from atmospheric noir to superhero spectacle isn’t a total mood-killer, but it does fall just short of “It was all a dream” in the least interesting paths the movie could have chosen. At least, that’s how it feels watching this after a solid decade of MCU dominance over mainstream culture.
The benefit of watching Dark City for the first time all these years later is that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be interesting or worthwhile. Its need to compete with contemporary triumphs like The Matrix or eXistenZ continues to fade with time, even if its year-early arrival before those sci-fi classics remains a mysterious curiosity. I found the movie glaringly flawed & confounding from start to end, and yet I’m increasingly fond of it the more I puzzle at it. It’s a deeply strange, beautifully hideous film that’s totally dislodged from its place in time.