Analysis: Proyas’ “Dark City”

This forty-sixth post in the “Films and Filmmaking” category of our blog examines the original 1998 theatrical version of Alex Proyas’ science fiction masterpiece: Dark City. As always, our focus is on making a unique contribution to analyzing the film. We avoid relatively pedestrian perceptions related to plot, characters, style, and cinematic techniques, which are found in abundance elsewhere. Our analyses are for those who have seen the movie and want to know more, to gain deeper insights. In service to that desire we study a movie in search of its soul, somewhat like the extraterrestrial mass-abductors of Dark City. Unlike them, however, we know where—and how—to look. 

Perceptions of film critics vary. Some think that the movie is asking: What does it mean to be human? Are we something more than puppet-like containers filled with memories and externally programmed agendas? Others err by seeing a failed attempt by cold intelligence to create a perfect world. Within that context some see a romantic tale of love conquering intellect. In most cases, critics have attempted to evaluate Dark City by drawing on previous dissections of earlier films the way bank appraisers might value a Frank Lloyd Wright home by choosing similarly-sized tract housing as comparables. A few critics (residents of the real-world version of Dark City) say the film is “tedious,” “bewildering,” and “lacks substance,” or find value only in the remarkable visuals. 

At a glance Dark City can look like an updated version of Plato’s parable of the cave, but Dark City is a deep city, a complex allegory about pandemic spiritual ignorance, confusion, fear, covert manipulation, and self-discovery. Its unenlightened residents live like lab rats in a morphing maze. “First, there was darkness; then came the strangers,” Dr. Schreber’s voice-over narration begins the tale of their tragic state. In this city where no sun shines, life is made meaningless by constant revision of identities, memories, places, and relationships. Those “awake” enough to witness the lie, and bold enough to risk insanity in pursuit of the truth, find beyond the city’s perimeter only the vast void of space (symbolic of the unenlightened supposition of absolute death). 

Detective Walenski awakens to the existential horror and, seeing no hope, chooses oblivion in order to escape the mind-bending enigma. Before committing suicide, he had investigated his reality just enough to become aware of the bizarre sham controlled by mysterious entities. Walenski represents every real-life person who, although intelligent, believes that s/he lacks control over circumstances. By contrast, protagonist John Murdoch finds that a psychic power surfaces from within when he focuses his intent to assert himself against limitation. As he exercises this power—which symbolizes the willpower we all possess—he gains progressively greater strength to not only defeat the dark Strangers but to remake his entire world and turn it towards unceasing light. 

Murdoch becomes a messiah, a role made possible by his anamnesis—his loss-of-forgetting that he is an extension of Source Energy Awareness (SEA).  Having slipped free of the bonds of the all-controlling Strangers, he manages to transform the city, to the benefit of all. Until then, Shell Beach is nothing more than an implanted memory, a cruel hoax, a tantalizing seascape painted on a billboard. Murdoch transforms that otherwise symbol of false hope into an actual place and experience of freedom and happiness. The movie has a moral: When we as individuals discover our true identity and focus our willpower in pursuit of heartfelt desires, achievement of any vision is realizable. All things exist in boundless Omniverse, and Shell Beach is right where one expects to find it because as Dr. Schreber tells Murdoch: “The world can be what you make it.”

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One Response to “Analysis: Proyas’ “Dark City””

  1. PluribusOne™ Says:

    After carefully examining the Director’s Cut we felt that an addendum (not an amendment) was in order.

    We agree with Alex Proyas that this is the film at its best, which is terrific. It is not a movie for everyone, and we see that as a very good thing considering that the average intelligence level of theater-goers is better matched to simpler ideas and famous actors.

    The Director’s Cut has a smoother flow and a grander start-to-finish sweep with the inclusion of pieces that had been chopped out for the theatrical cut. Extended scenes allow for a better bonding between the viewer and characters, and the further details supply a richer texture overall. All those ingredients together give a stronger sense that it is all real, whether in the future, the past, or some parallel universe. It succeeds as a noir-style documentary of the events that follow a mass abduction of humans from an unnamed planet (the “blue planet” reference is not in this cut, and is not needed).

    In the “Special Features” portion of the DVD, Proya’s mentioned that a sequel might be considered, but it is our feeling that this screenplay and its production are comparable to a perfect one-of-a-kind gemstone embedded in a piece of elaborate jewelry, such as a filigreed pendant: It has the greatest impact when unaccompanied by other stones, even if the other stones are diamonds. Let it be.

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