Director Alex Proyas followed up the box office and critical success of his 1994 film ‘The Crow’ with 1998’s ‘Dark City’, the majority of which was shot at Fox Studios Australia. A box office failure at the time, it has since become one of the most influential modern science fiction films. Steeped heavily in dystopian existentialism as it is, it’s difficult not to put this film in the same category as Ridley Scott’s own sci-fi cult classic, ‘Blade Runner’ (and not just because it suffered from a dumb studio-mandated voice-over).
John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), if that is his real name, wakes up in a hotel bathtub with an estranged wife, no memories, and with both cops and pale-faced creeps on his trail. The latter - the floating, whispery, teeth-clicking Strangers - have a greater plan in mind for the city’s residents. The film’s screenplay, credited to Proyas, Lem Dobbs, and David S. Goyer, has plenty of clever tricks, and nearly as much exposition, usually delivered breathlessly by a mysterious doctor (Kiefer Sutherland, channelling Peter Lorre). The plot explanations persist even in the more thoughtful director’s cut, which runs about 10 minutes longer. But in both versions, Proyas dresses the storytelling up with such splendour that the dialogue is beside the point - as it would be in a dream.
Proyas began writing the film in 1990, watching and waiting and fighting as it was moved from studio to studio as disagreements were had about the tone, intention, and marketability. Goyer had written ‘The Crow: City of Angels’, the sequel to Proyas' 1994 film ‘The Crow’; Proyas invited Goyer to co-write the screenplay for ‘Dark City’ after reading Goyer's screenplay for ‘Blade’, which had yet to be released. The Writers Guild of America initially protested at crediting more than two screenwriters for a film, but it eventually relented and credited all three writers.
Proyas originally conceived a story about a 1940s detective who is obsessed with facts and cannot solve a case where the facts do not make sense. "He slowly starts to go insane through the story," says Proyas. “He can't put the facts together because they don't add up to anything rational.” In the process of creating the fictional world for the character of the detective, Proyas created other characters, shifting the focus of the film from the detective (Bumstead) to the person pursued by the detective (Murdoch). Proyas envisioned a robust narrative where the audience could examine the film from the perspective of multiple characters and focus on the plot. Packed to the brim with detail, history, and discovery, it played with multiple genres that in the late 90s were on the verge of resurging but had yet to find their foothold.
The entire cast of the film turns in strange and lively work. Rufus Sewell takes centre stage at a time when he was primarily known in England for his theatre work, chosen by Proyas in part for that very unknown factor (Johnny Depp and Tom Cruise were both talked about to star in the film). Sutherland's performance as Dr Schreber - a role originally written for an older man (William Hurt was offered the part, while Sutherland himself thought the script was meant for his father) – quickly grows on you.
Proyas based the evil Strangers on Richard O'Brien's character in ‘The Rocky Horror Show’, Riff Raff. Proyas said, “I had Richard in mind physically when I wrote the character, because I had these strange, bald-looking men with an ethereal, androgynous quality.” When Proyas visited London to cast for the film, he met with O'Brien and found him suitable for the role of Mr Hand.
‘Dark City’ derives much of its power from the visual language of noir, extending it into the realm of fantasy. The film’s setting, an unnamed city in permanent nightfall, shifts and twists along with its plot. The dreamlike imagery renders the film’s transitions between a hermetically sealed noir world and a 'Metropolis'-like underground lair surprisingly fluid. With its shifting architectural styles, confusing subway lines, and constant echoes of the past, ‘Dark City’ evokes a nightmare of city life; Murdoch always seems to be uncovering new crevices and hallways as he searches for answers.
Proyas referenced film noir of the 1940s and the 1950s (such as ‘The Maltese Falcon’) as an influence for the film. It has additionally been described as Kafkaesque, and Proyas cited the TV series ‘The Twilight Zone’ as a conscious influence. Proyas wanted the film, though nominally science fiction, to have an element of horror to unsettle the audience. The film's style is often compared to that of the works of Terry Gilliam (especially ‘Brazil’). Some stylistic similarities have also been noted to Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro's 1995 film ‘The City of Lost Children’, another film inspired particularly by Gilliam. Fritz Lang's 1927 movie ‘Metropolis’ was a major influence on the film, showing through the architecture, concepts of the baseness of humans within a metropolis, and general tone. In one of the documentary shorts featured on the director's cut, the influence of the early German films ‘M’ and ‘Nosferatu’ are mentioned. One of the last scenes of the movie, in which buildings "restore" themselves, is strikingly similar to the last panel of the ‘Akira’ manga and Proyas outright acknowledged the psychokinetic end battle as an “homage to Otomo's Akira”.
Commenting on the changes he made to the theatrical release (primarily an opening narration that essentially spelled out the entire plot) Proyas said, “It was definitely there for the dummies, there’s no question,” a thought echoed by Sewell: “I think they probably felt they didn’t want to alienate certain people, but I just think, ‘Fuck ’em.'”
A critical and commercial flop that saw limited release in the last days of February in 1994, ‘Dark City’ made back a fraction more than that in its total worldwide release. Named by Roger Ebert as his pick for best film of the year, the film's popularity picked up serious steam through the wonders of home video release. The release of the director's cut in 2008 - which both restored the film to its original form and made use of technological advances to enhance certain special effects - only served to further boost popular opinion and re-awaken interest in this piece of weird science fiction cinema that was perhaps born just a year or two too soon.
‘The Matrix’ was released one year after ‘Dark City’ and was also filmed at Fox Studios in Sydney using some of the same sets. Comparisons have been made between scenes from the movies, making note of similarities in both cinematography and atmosphere, as well as the plot. When Christopher Nolan first started thinking about writing the script for ‘Inception’, he was influenced by "that era of movies where you had ‘The Matrix’, you had ‘Dark City’, you had ‘The Thirteenth Floor’ and, to a certain extent, you had ‘Memento’, too. They were based on the principles that the world around you might not be real".
‘Dark City’ continued to seep into a number of other films that followed, like the Gnostic-tinged movies of 1998-1999 (where the hero's journey is an extrapolation of the Gnostic creation story). These include ‘Equilibrium’, ‘eXistenZ’, ‘Pleasantville’, ‘The Truman Show’ and ‘Being John Malkovich’. At least two other movies starring Jennifer Connelly have imitated Proyas’ iconic shot of Connelly standing wistfully on a dock – ‘Requiem for a Dream’ and ‘House of Sand and Fog’. Word on the street even has it that the album ‘Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven’ by Godspeed You! Black Emperor syncs up to ‘Dark City’ the same way Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ does with with ‘The Wizard of Oz’.
All of the best sci-fi action films that incorporate heady topics into their narrative, such as the question of reality and personal identity, are often forced to tread lightly upon those topics, or to shoehorn the themes in when given a dialogue break in the script. ‘Dark City’ performed the rare feat of seriously pondering its inquiry through its tortured protagonist, whilst simultaneously having sequences of thrilling action. Perhaps this is why the film’s legacy continues to be so enduring, 20 years later.