The Darkness and the Light of Dark City

“This isn’t real. This is a simulation. Plato’s cave allegory. You’re watching shadows on the wall, and you think that they’re the reality. But if you could only look over your shoulder, you would see what’s causing those shadows. What’s actually real.”

—Daniel (Dark-“The Storm”)

Twenty-five years ago, Roger Ebert named Dark City the best film of 1998. As I rewatched it recently for the first time in over a decade I was struck by how little credit I’ve given this movie over the years. I’ve always loved director (and co-writer) Alex Proyas’ film, but I don’t believe I ever appreciated what it is ultimately saying, as well as how it goes about saying it.

To start, Dark City asks two questions:

  1. “Must one know they are free in order to be free?”
  2. “Do we need memories in order to feel love?”

These are fascinating questions, and ones I can’t say I think about all that often. The film presents these questions and gives some provocative answers.

Beginning with Question 1, in David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech given at Kenyon College (later named “This Is Water”), he ponders the notion of how education begets awareness, which results in more choice. After all, if we are only aware of two options when in actuality there are three, we aren’t as free as we think we are, even as we exercise our free will.

In “This Is Water,” Wallace opens with this anecdote:

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”

For most, free will equals the ability to make a choice, period. However, I believe there’s more to it than that. The citizens of the city in Dark City most likely live their lives as free people. If we were to ask even the lowliest among them whether they have free will or not, I’m sure they’d assume so. Again, if we can make a decision, isn’t that free will?

Of course, it isn’t. We know that because we see that the Strangers (an alien race who are experimenting with humans) are the ones who do all the controlling. The people in this city make choices, but it’s the Strangers who are the ones manipulating it all. They can take a man away from his family and put him with another family. He doesn’t know this, though. Because of that, he is unaware of how little free will he actually has. It’s tragic.

Emma outside the food automat in Dark City

Just imagine that one day you realize that all the hard work you did throughout your life didn’t actually happen. This life of yours was fabricated by an alien race determined to experiment on you. What if you used to be wealthy and now, you’re a beggar (or vice versa)? Sure, at some point these Strangers leave you alone to make your own decisions, but if you’re not really you, how can you make actual decisions?

Then again, what makes you, you? The citizens in Dark City live their lives with false memories, and it’s been said that we are basically the sum of our memories. Yet if our memories were given to us through a needle rather than lived experience, does this mean we wouldn’t be us? We wouldn’t be human?

This brings me to the film’s second question. John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) has memories of being married to a woman named Emma (Jennifer Connelly). She has recently had an affair, and he has begun killing women. However, John has also begun to demonstrate the abilities of the Strangers (mainly “tuning,” which involves a strong sense of telepathy). Because of this, John was unable to absorb the false memories he was to be implanted with.

As such, he doesn’t so much love Emma as he feels an attachment towards her. He’s probably lived a few different lives with her, and it’s possible he can determine some past feelings for her that he was programmed to have toward her. (And, to be fair, she’s played by Jennifer Connelly, so I can buy that he falls for her, even without the Strangers having manipulated him into doing so.)

At the end of the film, when they meet at Shell Beach, I get his point of view. Since he’s become free of the Strangers, he can actually fall in love. But what of Emma’s feelings toward John? Throughout the majority of Dark City, she loves her husband, regardless of her affair.

That said, does she really?

On the one hand, yes, she does. She’s literally programmed to have those feelings toward John. Now, the question is, can we say for certain that her love is true if its foundations are literally false? Emma is unaware that her memories aren’t actually hers. From her point of view, John is her husband, and she loves him. However, we know better. She can’t possibly love John for real.

If we choose to believe that romantic love is a real thing, it must stem from something real as well. If Emma’s love comes from false memories, I do not believe it’s real love. Once John remakes the world and begins an actual relationship with Emma (whose name is now Anna), that can absolutely turn into real love. Or not. Anna could very well decide to not be with John. He’s given her back that free will.

Sort of. When John becomes more powerful than the Strangers, thanks to the human collaborator, Dr. Schreber (played very well by Kiefer Sutherland), he remakes the drab manipulated world and creates something better. From his point of view, at least. By the film’s end, John is the free one. He knows the truth and lives accordingly. No one else is privy to this knowledge, though.

John and Dr. Schreber talk near a pool

That’s ultimately okay, I think. I’m no cynic. I believe John will let everyone be. He’s given them some semblance of an actual existence, though how long that’ll last is up in the air. I mean, the city exists on a spaceship in the middle of space, essentially unless I’ve gotten it wrong.

In the last few minutes of the movie, John finds a dying Mr. Hand, and they have this exchange:

Mr. Hand: But I wanted to know what it was like. How you feel.

John Murdoch: You know how I was supposed to feel. That person isn’t me. Never was. You wanted to know what it was about us that made us human. Well, you’re not going to find it in here. You were looking in the wrong place.

John motions to his head when telling Mr. Hand where they had gotten it wrong. The right place, of course, is the heart. Memories aren’t everything. What we feel also matters.

Is it possible that the experiment is still going? Perhaps. Or I got it right the first time? Then again, it’s just as likely that it doesn’t matter. Dark City is a parable about overcoming manipulation and asking questions regarding what it means to be free and to love.

I know. It’s pretty heady stuff. Perhaps it’s why Dark City didn’t succeed at the box office 25 years ago. (The highest-grossing film of 1998? Armageddon, in case you were wondering.) While The Matrix offered plenty of philosophical ideas and questions the following year, that film had bullet time and Keanu Reeves.

This is a film I’ve always loved, though. In his review, Ebert wrote:

“There’s such a wealth on the screen, such an overflowing of imagination and energy. Often in f/x movies the camera doesn’t feel free because it must remain within the confines of what has been created for it to see. Here we feel there’s no limit.”

I agree. The effects are something to behold, even if they aren’t as “exciting” as Neo stopping those bullets in that hallway. They also have that charm those movies with late-‘90s CGI have that I can never quite put my finger on, even as I dig the aesthetic.

25 years on, Dark City deserves more respect than it currently garners. It predates a lot of the same imagery and ideas found in The Matrix, while also managing a sort-of timeless quality that keeps it from being a late ‘90s movie, CGI notwithstanding. The city has elements from all over the 20th century, and there’s no popular music from the time of its release in 1998.

It’s easy and a little silly whenever someone says something to the effect of “That couldn’t be made today.” I get the idea, though. Dark City is a film with a middling budget that doesn’t have the biggest stars in the world, and it’s not action-packed. Would this movie get made today? Probably, but it would most likely go straight to on-demand or streaming. It’s kind of awesome that this film had a wide release.

John wakes up in bathtub at the beginning of Dark City

It’s a shame I, too, haven’t given this film the appreciation it deserves. Perhaps I’m not the only one looking back on it for its 25th anniversary. One can only hope. We need more movies to challenge the things we take for granted: freedom, memory, and love. Are we truly in control of such things, or is there someone (or something) in power manipulating us into thinking we are?

Either way, I just hope I can live my life believing I have the power. I might not be John Murdoch, but it’d be nice to at least live in a world of his creation rather than the Strangers. There’s something enticing about the darkness, but I don’t believe I could thrive in it. I need the light. Humans need the light.

Maybe the important part is turning around and seeing what’s causing the shadows.

Written by Michael Suarez

I write and occasionally teach English classes. When I'm not doing either, I'm watching something awesome, reading something awesome, listening to something awesome, eating something awesome, or resting. Actually, not everything I do is awesome, but I'm okay with that. My loves include Lost, cinema from the '90s and aughts, U2, David Bowie, most of Star Wars, and - you know what? I love a lot of things. More things than I hate.

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