sleep, wake, sleep: Dark City (1998)


Since I was very young, my dreams have been dominated by seascapes and cityscapes, beaches, blue seas, and imposing, concrete edifices that I later learned were called functionalist or brutalist. This is why Alex Proyas’ Dark City appealed to me, first on an aesthetic level.  The film takes place in a noirish urban expanse cast in perpetual night, a symphony of shadows and walls, stifling streets, alleys, and catacomb-like apartments that serve as symbols of the various characters’ isolated and alienated lives, lived alone-together, cut off from others and, as is later revealed, their own pasts.  The city folds back on itself and, like on a Pac-Man screen, those who try to exit it find themselves right back on the opposite side of the map.  One detects the influence of British sci-fi writer J.G. Ballard, whose short stories often take place in such realms.

The protagonist, John Murdoch.  The city’s eclectic and anachronistic design incorporates Art Deco touches, like this automat.


Before analyzing the film (which will require me to discuss the full plot), I will offer a brief review.  From what Rotten Tomatoes tells me, Dark City has gotten a bit of a bad rap, and has been compared unfavorably with similar films, such as The Matrix.  I found Dark City more conceptually rich than The Matrix, and its art direction much more original and powerful.  Both films deal in dreams, but Dark City does a better job of conveying the feel of a human dream, its arresting visual power, its otherness and its ability to disturb and dislocate its subject. For the record, it also predates that much-lauded blockbuster by a year. Let’s commence with spoilers.


In Dark City, John Murdoch is one of many humans living a bleak existence on a disc-shaped prison realm floating in the nothingness of space.  They are the subjects of an experiment by a dying race of hive-minded parasitic beings who believe that, by playing mix and match with memories in the humans’ heads, they can discover the secret to human vitality and individuality- that, through experiments on the mind, they can discover and appropriate the soul.  At midnight each day, time stops, everyone is put to sleep, given new pasts and personalities, and they wake up in different places.  They live in a perpetual night.  One of the most chilling scenes is when John succeeds in convincing a detective, played by John Hurt, that something is awry.  He says: “When was the last time you remember it being light outside?  And I’m not talking about some distant memory- do you even remember yesterday?”


This struck me as a deeply profound scepticism- when I was only five or six years old, I would not want to sleep, because I felt that I woke up as a new person each day- that unconsciousness was a serious break, a kind of death.  I now love sleep, but is that a good thing?  Have I been fooled?


John Murdoch wakes up, because he has developed a mutation that allows him to harness the power of the alien machines driving the prison-city.  In the course of his journey of self-discovery, John discovers that his childhood memories of an idealized place called Shell Beach are just illusions.  That there is no real Shell Beach, no real home outside of a place in his mind.  This is not just a plot point, but a human point, and one that is cutting now more than ever, for us cosmopolitans, us globalists.  As a recent college graduate and someone who has done a lot of traveling, I have come to believe that home is not a place, but is composed of people.  If those people are dispersed geographically, there is no home.  We romanticize faraway places, but when we get there, they never feel quite how we imagined.  We try to return to the haunts of our own pasts, but when we go there they don’t feel right, for the people we knew have left. Where did I come from, where am I going?  We are phantoms, as unable to answer those questions for our individual lives as we are in the dark about our past and future as an animal species.  A few bones and ruins.  Mists and shadow behind us, shadow and mists before us.  And as for the present?  Even that feels like a dream.


The good news is that our protagonist does defeat those parasitic beings.  He finds the power within to banish them and take control of the prison-city, to change his reality, and in a sense free his fellow humans.  Not surprisingly, he chooses to transform the dreary city into the hoped-for place of his dreams: Shell Beach, and presumably to live out his life there with the woman he loves.  Their love persists through memory losses, so it is real- at least more real than anything else in their world.


The bad, or at best ambiguous news, is that of course Shell Beach is still just a collective illusion, albeit one propped up by powerful machines, and everyone is still trapped on this disc-world, floating in the abyss of deep space.  The movie’s mythos leaves the question of where the humans were abducted from, their true origin, unanswered, and in the end we learn that at least one of the parasitic beings- the one who possesses all of John’s fake memories- has survived.  The duality persists.  Evil has not been once and for all defeated, and truth has once again been shrouded over by a (well-meaning) lie, a kind of founding myth.  John Murdoch begins, in a way, right back where he started.