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Dark City

Entry updated 26 December 2022. Tagged: Film.

Film (1998). New Line Cinema presents a Mystery Clock production. Directed by Alex Proyas. Written by Proyas, Lem Dobbs, and David S Goyer; story by Proyas. Cast includes Jennifer Connelly, Melissa George, William Hurt, Richard O'Brien, Ian Richardson, Rufus Sewell and Kiefer Sutherland. Theatrical cut 100 minutes; Director's Cut 111 minutes. Colour.

An Amnesiac murder suspect in a mysteriously sunless City discovers that his and everyone else's identities are the fabricated product of Memory Edits by the Strangers, a dying alien Hive Mind housed in reanimated human corpses, who have abducted humans to an asteroid-sized Pocket Universe – in fact, though this is not obvious from the film, a Starship en route to an unknown destination – a Zoo which they reshape nightly, while at the same time recombining the abductees' stolen memories to study individual Identity in an attempt to save their own species.

A year before the commercially much more successful The Matrix (1999), which replicated many of its conceptual and narrative components, this startling harbinger of the Philip K Dick-inspired metaphysical sf cinema of the next decade (see Cinema; Richard Kelly; Charlie Kaufman; Christopher Nolan; Duncan Jones) was sufficiently unlike anything yet seen to sink without trace on release. Proyas wrote the first draft in 1990, and after the success of The Crow (1994) the project was first picked up by – of all studios – Disney; Proyas approached Dobbs to revise the script with Proyas after Goyer initially turned it down. Disney grew nervous and the project passed to Fox, who engaged Goyer to replace Dobbs, though both writers continued to work together with Proyas on later drafts. The film stalled over casting – Proyas had wanted Ralph Fiennes or Liam Neeson for the lead, but the studio wooed Johnny Depp and Tom Cruise, who both flirted inconclusively with the role before New Line made a counter-offer giving Proyas a free hand. After poor test screenings, studio anxiety over the slow-release demystification persuaded Proyas very reluctantly to shift part of Sutherland's explanation, much against Proyas' wishes, into a spoken prologue giving much of the game away, and to follow it with a sequence, originally intended to be a climactic revelation, showing the city being transformed. These unhappy compromises diminished the film while doing nothing to salvage its box-office performance. A tenth-anniversary Director's Cut was released on DVD in 2008, essentially reconstituting the original cut shown at test screenings by filling out some scenes with additional footage, and finally ejecting the intrusive spoiler prologue and initial city-shaping sequence, making for a much more satisfying and graduated cognitive arc.

Pushing energetically at the limits of normal audience tolerance for conceptual load and narrative saturation, the film modulates from its hesitant beginning as a superficially conventional stylized noir mystery to open out into one of film's boldest explorations of Conceptual Breakthrough – with the heroes at one point literally knocking a hole in the walls of the world to reveal a star-filled void, into which the camera then soars to show us their world from the outside. The revelation is made more satisfying by its refusal of then-voguish Virtual Reality solutions in favour of a more disturbing scenario in which physical reality itself is plastic – the aliens and in due course the hero enjoy Telekinetic matter-shaping Psi Powers – and personal identity irretrievably lost in a web of induced confabulation. Proyas was strongly inspired by Daniel P Schreber's pioneering account of his paranoid psychosis, Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken (1903; trans Ida McAlpine, Richard A Hunter as Memoirs of My Nervous Illness 1955); Sutherland's character, whose memories of his original identity have been erased, is named after Schreber, perhaps by the Strangers themselves. The best efforts of Proyas and his impressive co-writers (Dobbs is the son of the painter R B Kitaj, and is known for his work with Stephen Soderbergh; Goyer would go on to play a key role in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, among much else) are only just able to finesse the plot into an illusion of coherence; it is never clear, for example, how studying human individuality is imagined to save the Strangers' species, and many fundamental questions are deliberately unconfronted, including what century the action is set in and where the abductees originated.

This most ambitious Australian sf film since George Miller's Mad Max series was one of the first productions at what became Fox Studios Australia, and despite its studied impression of an everywhere that is nowhere, the film bears a distinctively Australian stamp of imagination – with its narrative of decolonization, sense of isolation and estrangement from parent cultures on the edge of unknown spaces, and an opposition between urban decrepitude and a yearning for beach and sunlight which draws confessedly on Proyas' memories of Sydney in the seventies. But it also offers, as Vivian Sobchack especially has argued, a powerful evocation of the deracinated postmodern self and city; while many (including Dobbs) have been tempted to read the Strangers as Hollywood producer figures thwarted by a film-makerly hero. The actors grapple gamely with the nigh-impossible challenge of playing characters without identities whose memories are not their own, though the difference between existential dislocation and glazed woodenness is not always easily perceptible to the viewer. In this respect the film itself should perhaps be seen as a mirror of the Strangers' experiment, an exploration of how far a conventional (and performable) understanding of character can persist when the audience knows that everyone's memories are synthetic, combinatorial, and newly implanted (as indeed they are for the actors). The Metropolis-like setting is stunningly visualized by Proyas' regular effects wizard Patrick Tatopoulos, here unusually serving as production designer, and Proyas' canny preference for in-camera effects over digital enhances the unsettling texture of vraisemblance. The film is dedicated to the television dramatist Dennis Potter, whose sf-based late work it echoes. The novelization is Dark City (1998) by Frank Lauria. [NL]


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