The cinematic dream logic of Dark City

Now released as a director’s cut DVD, Dark City (1998) evokes with its dream logic the greatest hits of the darker recesses of cinema, especially the peak of German Expressionism and 1940s film noir. After the opening scene conjures a version of the cityscape of Metropolis, the viewer encounters a nameless man, suffering from amnesia, who wakes up in a bathtub. The overhead light swings back and forth much like the lighting in the climactic scene in the cellar of Psycho. The man finds blood on his forehead. While he tries to get his bearings in the apartment (not to mention some clothes), a doctor telephones to tell him that he needs to leave quickly because men are after him. He also discovers a dead prostitute on the floor with spirals of blood drawn on her chest, and evades three sickly pale creatures of various ages (including a child) who all evoke Nosferatu with their long coats, fedoras, and bald heads.

Soon enough we see Dr. Shreber (Kiefer Sutherland playing a more youthful Dr. Caligari) standing over a maze with a mouse, and this suggests a Kafkaesque Modernist image—the labyrinth. The film viewer and the man who may be John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) must maneuver through a kind of maze as he tries to learn who he is, why he’s wanted for murder, and what do all of these bald men want him for. By the time the film plunges us into a large arena where bald pale men all dressed in leather bondage gear stand around like interns viewing a medical experiment, one would really like to know what’s going on. The film’s troubled release back in 1998 involved just that question. Should the filmmakers add a voiceover narration at the beginning to explain things, or just let the dream logic work itself out? Studio pressures obliged director Alex Proyas to reluctantly go with the narration, but as the excellent new director’s cut on DVD shows, the film intrigues far more when it doesn’t explain itself too closely.

Dark City mixes and matches nightmarish images as it pleases. The prostitute murders suggest Jack the Ripper. Sutherland’s Dr. Shreber likes to hang out in the pool because the Strangers don’t like water. With all of the shadows of the dark pool, could director Alex Proyas have the famous pool scene in Cat People in mind? As befits 1940s and 1950s film noir, Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) investigates the killings cynically enough, but he’s bothered by Murdoch’s reasonable questions, such as when did you last see the sunlight? And do you know how to get to Shell Beach? Every night, at midnight, the Strangers shut down the city. Everyone falls asleep so the Strangers can make changes in the architecture that grows and shifts around like gigantic surrealist tumors. The Strangers also shift people’s identities, so that the man who works at the hotel becomes a newspaper vendor without knowing it. Murdoch suffers the dream-like dislocation of seeing him in both places, although the man calmly explains with a kind of Invasion of the Body Snatchers creepiness that he has been working the newspaper kiosk for 20 years.

The lost paradise image of Shell Beach evokes many Hitchcock themes and Brazil. I liked the way the image of the beach evolves from a postcard to a billboard (where Murdoch fights with the Strangers), to a child’s book of drawings, and finally a large poster over a wall. Each manifestation of the beach further emphasizes the darkness of the nightscape of the city, and since there’s always an illustration of a woman waving from the beach, one can associate her with with the torch singer Emma Murdoch (Jennifer Connolly). Murdoch eventually discovers that her memory of their marriage may be just a fiction inserted into her brain by the Strangers. Still, she stands by her love for him, implying that her love is stronger than any nocturnal tampering of their reality.

So, what does Dark City imply? The film works best when one can’t figure that out, but I like the way it suggests that our world is a construct that can shift about just underneath our consciousness, and how we are too wrapped up in our everyday activities to see the slipperiness of identity, the depreciations of memory, and our nearness to insanity.