Dark City, Plato, and the Art of Film Making

Alex Proyas’ Dark City isn’t a perfect film, but it is an interesting one. Released in 1998, the film bombed in the box office despite receiving positive reviews from critics and being nominated for several awards. Since then it has received a cult following, and in 2008 a Director’s Cut was released on DVD and Blu-Ray that added fifteen minutes of additional footage and removed the opening narration that Proyas believed — quite accurately, by my own opinion — revealed far too much to an audience that executives feared to be less than average in intelligence.

As I have done so before, I must warn the reader that spoilers are beyond this point.

The film follows John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) as he stumbles across the nameless city searching for answers. Murdoch has woken up in a hotel room with total amnesia, finding that police are hunting him for the murders of six prostitutes. Also hunting for him are a group of individuals known as the Strangers, who seem to think of Murdoch as some sort of threat. At the heart of the mystery is Dr. Daniel P. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), a man who appears to be working for the Strangers despite wishing to help Murdoch. As the film goes on, Murdoch discovers that the sun never rises and the entire city seems to fall asleep at the strike of midnight. Eventually, he learns that the city is a facade devised by the Strangers, beings disguised as humans that lack individuality. The city serves as a means to experiment upon humans, with the Strangers changing the city and implanting different memories upon people each night as the city sleeps. All of this is in the hopes to uncover what makes humans individual from one another, something that the Strangers desire for their survival. By the end of the film, Murdoch confronts the Strangers and all but destroys them, taking control of the city and reshaping it to his own design.


The Director’s Cut, which I will claim to be the superior film, more accurately depicts Proyas’ original artistic vision for Dark City. The titular location is a hodge podge of eras and styles, creating a setting that is primarily reminiscent of Art Deco but nonetheless contains elements of so many periods of time that it’s impossible to exactly place when and where the city is supposed to be. The effect of this is the given impression that the city does not actually represent a place that one would call home, but is instead a place that someone believes others might call home. Given that the city is nothing but a cleverly disguised maze with humans as the rats, this is rather befitting

In fact, this is made even more befitting when one analyzes the film itself. Dark City does not adhere to any one genre of fiction, but instead borrows elements from several. There is the story of hard boiled Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) who’s leading the hunt for John Murdoch, providing Dark City with an element of noir. There’s the tale of Murdoch’s search for truth in a city where the truth changes with every strike of midnight, which lends elements of thriller to the overall plot. The introduction and various actions of the Strangers as they too hunt for Murdoch provides the audience with a sense of terror often found in horror. Finally, the truth of the Strangers and the city finishes the tale with elements of science fiction.


Regardless of whether one may find this combination of styles and genres to be genius or sloppy, there are certain elements that warrant discussion. Throughout the entire film, a consistently asked question pertains to the soul of mankind. The Strangers seek to know what it is that makes humans unique from one another, hence their experimentation with memories. Despite the ever changing memories of the people, they discover that there is an unknown element that seems to connect them to one another regardless of their changing identities. As Proyas proclaims in the Director’s Cut commentary, “For me the question is, if there was a man and a woman who were in love who were married let’s say, and who had been together for a very long time, if by some strange procedure they could have their memories erased, and then they would re-meet, would they fall in love again? Is love some kind of a force that rules us beyond our identification with each other and ourselves? My feeling is that’s probably the case.” The film offers no clear answers regarding the exact nature of this connection, but it’s worth mentioning that a very similar premise would be later discussed in Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.


Another interesting subject of conversation are the predominating elements of Art Deco in the city. Once popular during the post-World War I era, Art Deco was a style that wasn’t exclusive to any one location. Examples of Art Deco architecture could be found in cities all around the world, making it a style that was universal for humanity. This is what makes it such a strong choice for a city that is meant to have no clear location. What’s also interesting about the use of Art Deco is what it represents; while it was popular, Art Deco represented luxury, glamour, and a strong faith in social and technological progress. This directly compliments the illusion the Strangers offer humanity in their city, providing them with a sense that things are exactly as they should be and that there’s no reason to question the status quo.


The irony in this is that it directly contrasts the truth of the matter. As Murdoch discovers while searching for the ever elusive Shell Beach, the city is isolated. It doesn’t exist in any one particular place because there is nothing but empty space outside of its walls. There is no ocean. There is no Shell Beach. There are no horizons to look out to with wonder and curiosity. With a lack of an outside, a place to expand and explore, Proyas conveys the message that the denizens of this city have nowhere to go and no way to progress. Just like the rest of the city, Shell Beach’s rumored existence serves only to strengthen the illusion the Strangers have built for humanity.


Thus, Shell Beach serves as the fire by which its light is used by the Stranger to cast shadows for the denizens of the city. As theologian Gerard Loughlin has statedDark City can be seen as a retelling of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which denizens of a cave are chained and trapped there while facing a blank wall. Upon the wall, their guards and wardens cast shadows by a fire’s light, which the denizens come to accept as the entirety of reality because that is all they have ever experienced. One denizen manages to escape his chains and break out of the cave, discovering daylight and the world beyond. Once educated of the greater truth, he returns to the cave to free the others.

Much like those denizens, the people of the city are trapped and given shadows to treat as their entire reality. Murdoch succeeds in breaking free of his bonds and discovering the greater truth, that the city is a shadow cast by the Strangers. Unlike the prisoner of the Allegory, however, Murdoch realizes that there is no world outside of the city, and so upon learning the truth and learning how the shadow is cast, he takes control of the city and begins to cast his own shadows for the people. In the end, Shell Beach can serve as nothing more than a hopeful ideal for the people who may never be allowed to see the truth of the place they call home.


This raises an interesting question: is Murdoch right to do this? Some may argue that his choice to continue the illusion for the sake of the people is the right choice, as the truth would be far too great and terrible for the people. On the other hand, some may argue that Murdoch’s choice to continue the illusion ultimately makes him no greater than the Strangers before him. Although he may not be experimenting upon the people of the city, the removal of constant shifts in the city’s reality and the creation of a physical Shell Beach may one day lead to people wishing to see what’s beyond the horizon that Murdoch has created, and sooner or later the illusion may come crashing down anyway. By then, Murdoch may have caused more harm than good. Regardless of which choice is the right one, a third stance may be taken: that Murdoch alone has no right to make that choice.

It’s also interesting to note that Dark City may serve as an analogy for the art of film making. Here’s a city that acts as a shadow, an illusion, for the people who inhabit it. Those people are submitted to an illusion that, regardless of the fact that they’re oblivious to the truth, they must accept as their reality, much in the same way that an audience must temporarily suspend their disbelief and become immersed in the story of a film. This illusion is controlled by the Strangers, a less than kind stand-in for film executives who seek to see the final product be made entirely within their own vision. The constant change of setting and memories — which one could argue results in a total change of character — is not unlike the film making process that so often results in script rewrites and scenes being re-shot. Murdoch learns the ways of casting this shadow, much like a director learning the ways of film making, and in doing so seeks to reshape the city in his own vision without interference, just as the director as an artist seeks to craft a film in his vision.

Except, the final product isn’t just his vision, now is it? Murdoch’s choice to craft the city in his image is mingled with his need to maintain the illusion for its denizens. There is no longer a way to manipulate the memories of its people, and so to reshape the city in his image while maintaining the illusion, he must build his new city based on the memories of those who inhabit it. Murdoch’s vision, and consequently his shadow, is crafted not just based on his own vision but the vision of all of those people, just as a director must make compromises with the rest of the cast and crew to create a uniform and beautiful film. Otherwise, a film may never make it out of the darkness of production and into the light of day at its premier.


All images are taken from Dark City and are the property of New Line Cinema. They are used for non-profit purposes in accordance with the Fair Use doctrine.


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