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Weekly Alibi Looking Glass World

By Devin D. O'Leary

MARCH 16, 1998: 

Dark City

There seems no better medium than film for expressing the ideas, images and individuals contained within the realm of science fiction. Film is a visual medium, and what more visual subject matter than speculative fiction? Yet, when one compares the number of truly great science fiction films to the number of certified classic dramas, say, or comedies even, the imbalance is clear. Most science fiction films are, in fact, not really science fiction films. Alien is, at its heart, a horror film. Terminator is an action movie. Giant bugs aside, Starship Troopers is a war flick. Even Star Wars is simply a redressing of Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress--a samurai film. Hollywood, it seems, views science fiction not as a genre, but as a design element. The few genuine landmark science fiction films (Metropolis, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Blade Runner) view their speculative elements not as mere window dressing, but as integral parts of the final product. They use science fiction to probe problems and ideas that simply cannot be addressed in our everyday world. Take James Cameron's Aliens and set it in an Old West outpost besieged by marauding Indians, and you've got essentially the same story. Set Stanley Kubrick's 2001 in the South American jungle, and you've got ... nothing.

All of this applies quite seriously to Alex Proyas' new film, Dark City. It is the first film I have seen, certainly since Blade Runner, that can be called a true and unequivocal work of science fiction. With Dark City, writer/director Proyas dives even deeper into the realm of urban fantasy that he hinted at in The Crow. Here, he has created a world unlike any we have seen before, startling in its originality, engrossing in its completeness. Set in a somewhere, sometime Edward Hopper-meets-Fritz Lang nightmare, Dark City unveils a junkpile metropolis where the night never ends, where skyscrapers twist up overnight and everything is a grubby collision of '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s Manhattan. As tour guide to this artificial urban world, Proyas has chosen John Murdock (Brit actor Rufus Sewell). We, the viewers, explore the unknown, unnamed city along with Murdock, who has awakened in a dingy hotel room with a dead body at his feet, a complete lack of memories in his head and an intrepid police inspector (William Hurt) hot on his heels.

From this cliché crime novel beginning--seen so often in the work of Cornell Woolrich (Phantom Lady, The Black Curtain, The Black Path of Fear)--Proyas spins a fevered film noir fantasy. Murdock is not the only denizen of this mysterious city to be suffering a memory loss. No one, it seems, can remember their past correctly. A chalk-faced, trench-coated alien race known as the Strangers are using the city as their own personal experiment, fiddling with geography and mixing and matching memories in an attempt to understand "the human soul." Murdock, of course, is special. He's starting to get flashbacks of his past, and he alone seems to be able to resist the Strangers' ability to stop time and to manipulate reality around them.

What initially seems like a dark, dreamy landscape begins to coalesce into something far creepier--a concrete reality only tinged with nightmare. Murdock is more than a wrongfully accused murder suspect; he is a man in search of his own identity. This is not a simple search for name and occupation (such bits of trivia become meaningless by film's end) but a quest for individuality, for self-awareness. His lovely wife (Jennifer Connelly), his oddball "doctor" (Keifer Sutherland)--are they real or merely creations of the Strangers? Such Kafkaesque touches lift Dark City to an even higher existential plane.

Few films have had the integrity to create such a powerful sci-fi world and stick with it. Whereas a lesser film might have dismissed all its fantastic elements with a casual "it was all just a dream" finale, Dark City comes up with believable and coherent explanations for everything. Oddly enough, several reviewers have praised the film's visual style but damned it for an empty-headed script. I find it odd that so many film critics automatically acquaint a strong visual style with a lack of story. These are undoubtedly the same knuckleheads who, 16 years ago, missed the entire point of Blade Runner and leveled the identical "pretty but vapid" criticism. Back in 1982, people were not ready for a fable about how technology was so far outstripping us that it was becoming "more human than human." Perhaps today, we aren't ready for a film that asks us to examine what, in this ever expanding universe of ours, truly defines us as human.

Dark City is not the kind of film that everyone will take to. If E.T. the Extraterrestrial is about the extent of your sci-fi tolerance, then Dark City is not for you. Some critics have dismissed the film (as they do much of science fiction) as entirely lacking in human emotion. Such critiques really miss the point. Dark City is a deeply humanist film. Yes, it may be difficult at first to relate to a protagonist who doesn't even know who he is. But Murdock's desperate search for identity is as compellingly human as our own search for a home, a job and someone to love on our ordinary little planet. Like the city of its title--and I suppose like the human animal itself--Dark City is a fascinating pastiche of everything that has preceded it. One part Metropolis, one part Franz Kafka, one part film noir and one part Alice in Wonderland combine to create a work of shattering originality--a cult classic in the birthing!

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