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!
--Devin D. O'Leary
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