If there is a single most overlooked movie in all of SciFi, it just might be Dark City. What is Dark City, you ask? Never heard of it? Well here’s an overview of one of my favorite films of all time!
Dark City is a fantastical horror-SciFi Noir film that came out in 1998 to almost zero fanfare. I don’t know of anyone besides myself who saw the film upon its release in theaters. I think it actually may have been a bit too dark and ‘out there’ for the time. But it was also woefully overshadowed by another movie that came out just over one year later, the Matrix.
I mention the Matrix because in many ways Dark City was the Matrix before Keanu Reeve ever learned Kung Fu. What do I mean by that? Well, I mean quite literally that Dark City follows the story of a man who gradually comes to realize the world he lives in is very much a contrivance, and that he, and everyone living in it, are pawns in a much larger, much darker game than he ever imagined. More so, he discovers that he is ‘the one’ person who has the power to change that world.
Sounds like The Matrix, right?
Well it’s actually so much better. The Matrix is a great piece of science fiction, but sorry, Dark City did it first. Not only is the main character, John Murdoch, a man who finds his destiny is greater and more terrifying than his wildest nightmares, but even the structure of the story unfolds like a test run for the Matrix.
John Murdoch, played by Rufus Sewell, lives in a world ruled by beings known as The Strangers who are able to reshape every physical aspect, making buildings appear and vanish very much like Matrix Agents. They are even able to change people’s lives, and minds, through the help of one lone human who knows their sinister secret. Dr. Schreber, played by Kiefer Sutherland. Dr. Schreber plays an integral role in awaking John Murdoch to the reality of their wold. He even uses a substance of sorts to bring about this realization, a la taking the blue pill…
Where The Matrix is a big science fiction action flick, Dark City is a focused, methodical crime drama that unfolds into a frantic, chilling escape thriller. As John Murdoch slowly, and painfully awakens from the fog of lies that is his life, he starts to hold on to fond memories from his childhood as an anchor for what he perceives is his rapidly escaping sanity. One memory in particular seems to drive him forward when turning back isn’t an option. The bright and sunny Shell Beach is the only beacon of light in the darkness that is quickly swallowing him.
Following him on his path are a cast of characters who all find their lives thrust into turmoil as a result of John’s quest to get back to Shell Beach. His wife, played by Jennifer Connelly, and a tenacious Inspector, played by William Hurt, serve as the two main stressors in John’s life, besides the men in black hats chasing him, of course. While you feel for Mrs. Murdoch throughout the film, it is actually Inspector Bumstead who undergoes the most change besides Murdoch. His pursuit of John leads him to the same realizations of hopelessness and fear, and he probably would have preferred never to know his world’s dark secrets.
Dark City is very literally dark. Every scene has more black in it than anything else, with emotionally draining color as the only bright spot. The artistic direction generates a cold, nightmarish mood throughout, much like today’s horror films. It’s one of the most visually striking films I’ve ever seen. And that’s strange since it is a Noir piece, and almost engulfed with shadows from end to end. But the film’s lighting, as well as the title, become so very key to how Dark City ends.
Great twist endings are a rare, special phenomenon. Dark City has an ending that will quite literally drop your jaw, and lead to a host of questions that will forever remain unanswered. At least once a year I revisit Dark City, and after every viewing I sink down in my seat and ponder all the questions that inevitably flood my mind, even though I’ve seen the movie dozens of times.
If you’re looking for high octane action and special effects, look elsewhere. But if you’re in the mood for some off the beaten path, something dark and brooding, a film that takes you by the hand on an adventure through the shadows, just to let go right at the end, Dark City is that movie. Give it a try, and let me know what you think either in the comments below, or by dropping us a tweet!