Dark City

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Alex Proyas

Written by Proyas, Lem Dobbs, and David S. Goyer

With Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, Richard O’Brien, Ian Richardson, and William Hurt.

By Bill Boisvert

People complain that movies are shallow, but I think they’ve become too highbrow. Take German expressionism, the cinematic complex of gloomy cityscapes, claustrophobic interiors, mannered acting, and runic symbology. In the age of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, expressionism belonged to the avant-garde, but lately it’s become Hollywood shorthand for modern angst, used to convey everything from the torment of a romantic soul trapped in an android body (Blade Runner) to the individual’s suffering at the hands of bureaucracy (Brazil) to the sexual hysteria percolating just beneath the surface of middle-class normalcy (Blue Velvet). If anything, expressionism has grown more radical as it invades the multiplex. Brecht himself couldn’t have penned a more strident attack on bourgeois naturalism than Batman and Robin, with its Gothic-noir sets, its cast of reified abstractions, and its endless speechifying (“Batman and Robin–militant arm of the warm-blooded oppressors–animal protectors of the status quo!” spits Poison Ivy in one of her less didactic moments). Dark City, a stylish sci-fi parable now in its second run, is Hollywood’s latest exercise in millennial expressionism, yet the film reveals more about the political underpinnings of the genre than its makers probably intended.

This dank revival shouldn’t surprise us, given the parallels between Germany in the 20s and the U.S. in the 90s. Like the Germans of the Weimar Republic, who feared global war and revolution, we’re fascinated with doomsday motifs: superviruses, asteroid impacts, worldwide computer crashes. They worried that rapid industrialization and urbanization had spawned a violent and dehumanized underclass; our rapid de-industrialization and de-urbanization inspire the same dread. Germany wrestled with the revolution in mass culture sparked by radio and movies; now computerized representations promise us a subtler, more pervasive change.

And like the ill-fated Germans of the republic, we’re preoccupied with the problem of authentic consciousness in an age when real memory is easily displaced by fantasy–in our case, virtual reality–and personality has been rationalized into discrete functional attributes, divided between the regimented cheer of the workplace and the induced hysteria of the movie theater. An outgrowth of such anxious times, expressionism emphasizes the link between mental states and external representations. The characters’ psychological fragmentation is objectified by set design and observable gestures, by contrasts between harsh light and deep shadow, and by polarized acting styles, either muted or manic. This exteriorizing of the mind also implies its opposite: a social control in which the individual is colonized by external representations. At one level, then, expressionism critiques an industrial capitalism whose education, advertising, and other forms of propaganda divide our consciousness, turning us into both robotic workers and emotionally overwrought consumers.

So it’s natural that filmmakers of both eras should create urban dystopias with citizens who are either sleepwalkers or paranoids, laboring under the shadow of some nameless catastrophe. Dark City is a place of eternal night (like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis) presided over by a race of pale, bald, emaciated aliens called the Strangers (who recall F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu). The Strangers have achieved the ultimate technological breakthrough–they can alter physical reality with their thoughts–yet their civilization is mysteriously dying. Like other advanced races in sci-fi lore, they seem to be suffering from a crisis of overdevelopment, a too-intimate fusion of technology and consciousness that causes a debilitating malaise marked by emotional detachment, physical atrophy, and psychological manipulation.

The cure for this malady is always the same–a parasitic relationship with a more primitive and spiritually robust species, i.e., humans. To this end the Strangers have abducted humans from earth to serve as guinea pigs in a vast psychology experiment. Aided by a human psychiatrist (Kiefer Sutherland doing a bad Peter Lorre impression), the Strangers erase their victims’ memories and implant new ones by injecting a serum into the brain; meanwhile, they use their collective telekinetic forces, amplified by an enormous underground machine, to reconfigure the cityscape. People awake from nocturnal comas to new names, new jobs, new apartments, a new skyline, and new memories of a past they never lived. By systematically rearranging their subjects’ memories and surroundings, the Strangers hope to uncover what they themselves lack: the soul, that essential residue of identity, independent of environment and life experience, that makes us human.

One night a test subject, John Murdoch (played by a heavy-lidded Rufus Sewell), wakes between memory erasure and memory implantation. A total amnesiac, he finds himself the object of an M-style manhunt and discovers that he’s acquired the psychic powers of the Strangers. Pursued at every turn, Murdoch is befriended by the psychiatrist, who considers him the savior capable of leading humanity out of thralldom. Finally Murdoch is captured by the Strangers, who drag him down to their cavernous underground city and engage in a protracted and inconclusive debate about his relevance to their research program. Thanks to a timely brain injection from the psychiatrist, Murdoch suddenly “remembers” how to manipulate the aliens’ big telekinesis machine, and in a titanic battle of brain waves he defeats the Strangers and takes control of Dark City himself.

Boil off the fantasy elements and you’re left with a simple plot: alienated, urban-identified “genius” realizes his true potential with the help of an understanding psychiatrist–Good Will Hunting done up by Fritz Lang. Murdoch, while no intellectual giant, is something of a psychoanalytic prodigy–the ideal subject of a classical Jungian analysis, with no past or memories of his own to obstruct his view into the collective unconscious. In his search for identity he’s guided only by hazy visions of a place called Shell Beach, a sunny oceanfront dappled with cottages and laughing children. Like the collective unconscious itself, Shell Beach is public and omnipresent but strangely inaccessible; billboards advertise it, subway trains travel to it (but never stop for passengers), and everyone Murdoch meets reminisces about vacationing there (although they can never remember exactly where it is). Murdoch’s quest leads him literally to a brick wall, beyond which lies only the emptiness of interstellar space. Shell Beach is really a place in the mind, a mythopoeic homeland to which the prisoners of Dark City long to return.

Murdoch’s struggle with the aliens thus symbolically recapitulates the early conflict between Freud, who like the Strangers believed that childhood memories were the key to adult character, and Jung, who laid bare the universal archetypes beneath the individual’s psyche. But the mythology of Dark City also recalls the highbrow, metaphysical anti-Semitism that informed Jungian psychology at a deep level and stereotyped Jews as a race startlingly similar to the Strangers. As Richard Noll comments in his book The Aryan Christ, Jung considered the Jews an old, feeble race, spiritually desiccated by their own hyperrationalism and cut off from the soul-nurturing archetypes that still coursed through the Aryan psyche. The ancient Aryan tribes had preserved their pagan reverence for sun, rivers, and trees, but the Jews–like the vampiric Strangers, who shun sunlight and water–had turned their backs on life, embracing the arid abstraction of monotheism. Modern civilization, scientifically ordered and entrenched in sooty industrial cities, struck Jung as a sinister experiment, run by Judaic elites who had no cultural contribution to make and could only prey upon and manipulate the inchoate yearnings of the Aryan volk.

Not that the filmmakers buy into this racialist agenda. The anti-Semitic connotations, while unmistakable to any student of German history, don’t even register to most people. Yet Dark City’s iconography still packs a heavy subliminal wallop. No archetype is more deep-seated in the American psyche than the bleak, congested “inner city,” a jungle of crime and rootlessness. Although supposedly drawn from its inmates’ memories, Dark City is not a typical American city–a hollowed-out, low-rise plain of parking lots, strip malls, and manicured office parks–but a pastiche of retro urban signifiers, a vertiginous maze of pre-Depression skyscrapers, friendly hookers, hard-boiled detectives, smoky nightclubs, and boxy cars. It’s the kind of city that scarcely exists anymore outside of a few Vegas theme resorts, the kind of city Americans would rather forget. In ascending to power Murdoch reenacts the catharsis of urban renewal: skyscrapers crash, tenements crumble, and beyond the city walls, as the very first sunrise breaks over Dark City, Shell Beach finally materializes, an ur-suburb of single-family homes in a leafy greensward, complete with its own commuter bus line.

For most Americans, then, the movie ends on an upbeat note: the destruction of a large city. But Murdoch is presented not as the agent of demographic tragedy or a one-man Kristallnacht, but as a hero who rescues a captive people from the exploitation of evildoers. In so doing he dispels the anomie of modern existence–that awful feeling of being trapped in an artificial persona imposed by society–and turns chaos into a consensus based on psychic paradigms. This is the resolution one critic hailed as the film’s “humanist message.”

Real humanists may have misgivings. Dark City departs in telling ways from the traditional expressionist concern with individual autonomy as articulated in Blade Runner, the movie that jump-started the neo-expressionist trend. Set in a futuristic Los Angeles, depicted as Manhattan on a drizzly day, Blade Runner is similarly obsessed with memory, identity, and urban rootlessness, examining the plight of a proletarian underclass of androids. It diagnoses the modern sickness of anomie and false consciousness in its starkest terms: designed to wear out in a few years, the androids are programmed with a human lifetime’s worth of memories, selected to reconcile them with their dead-end roles as miners, prostitutes, and policemen. But an outlaw band of androids searches for raw, direct, unmediated experience; like teenagers hungry for sensation, they drink and brawl and screw their way across the solar system, wreaking vengeance on the authority figures who programmed them. At the film’s climax the rebel leader dies gazing rapturously into the sky as a thunderstorm pelts his face with rain; the hero and his lover flee the city for a landscape of lush forests and snowcapped mountains.

Jung would have approved of this ending–especially the nature worship–as would romantics from Byron to Hemingway. And Dark City seems to buy into it too: at the end of the movie Murdoch has achieved the highest possible level of autonomy, effortlessly projecting a sun, an ocean, and a real estate development out of sheer nothingness. He has achieved “self-deification,” the endpoint of a successful Jungian analysis, at which the subject recognizes within himself the attributes of the gods. But if Blade Runner posits that authentic consciousness must be accumulated from life, Murdoch will remain forever inauthentic. For him there is no real world to experience, just narcissistic projections of his own fantasies, made possible only by the machinery he inherited from the Strangers themselves.

Murdoch would be a tragic figure if not for the palpable joy his dreamscapes inspire in the other characters. As it is, though, he suggests someone far removed from the quixotic individualists of Blade Runner; Murdoch is, in effect, Walt Disney, himself a rather Jung-like man who flirted with Nazism, fretted over the malignant influence of Jews on popular culture, and took as his life’s mission the wholesale manufacture of rejuvenating archetypes in the form of movies, fairy tales, and theme parks. Murdoch unites the filmmaker and the filmgoer; he is both the creator of media spectacles and their captive audience. His triumph implies that there is no escape, no possible viewpoint apart from the hallucinations provided by the national entertainment state. Dark City celebrates the power of the Disney-Spielberg-Cameron combine, the huge corporate Dreamworks that overwhelms the individual, cynically assuring us that history and memory will always succumb to myth and archetype. If that’s humanism, we need it like we need a shot in the brain.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dark City film still.