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Revisiting Alex Proyas and Dark City

July 31, 2009

Is what we know only what our collective unconscious allows us to know?  Is it possible that humanity’s identity exists only within a memory?  Is there a thread linking each of us to the other, leading us along dream splattered landscapes of reordered puzzle pieces, or are we more than what we know.  If I wake up tomorrow and remember nothing, not my name nor my face, am I still me?  Or am I a stranger tasked with reinventing a mind imprisoned in this clumsy home.

In 1998’s Dark City, Alex Proyas poses these questions within the confines of a dark, industrialized, claustrophobic world enclosed in darkness, controlled by madness.  The strangers huddle beneath the city streets awaiting the midnight hour; it is then that they send the desperate, tired masses off to sleep.  Rising from below, these leather clad, Barkeresque figures float above the pavement collecting memories, searching for answers to the mystery that is human.

And so the question is, “are we more than the mere sum of our memory?” Will a mind erased and reinvented come to the same conclusions that took a lifetime to form? When John Murdoch, the underrated Rufus Sewell, awakens in a grimy hotel room submerged in a tub of dirty water, he finds his own mind erased. Climbing out of the tub, he stumbles toward the mirror, desperate to see who stands before him. The face in the mirror is his, but the mind does not recognize the features. Panicked, he knocks the fishbowl from its stand. It falls in slow motion, shattering like the lost collection of John’s memories, into a million fragments. Instinctively, he rescues the flopping goldfish and drops it into the tub.

Suddenly, the phone rings. “Hello,” John answers. And in short, segmented phrases, Dr. Schreber, Keifer Sutherland fresh off of his sick, twisted performance in Freeway, begins to implant new memories into Murdoch’s head. “People coming, must leave, memory erased.” And like each memory lost, fragments reintroduced force John to put the pieces back to together. On his way out of the room, he discovers a dead girl near the bed, spirals carved bluntly into her body. Escaping the room, he hears noises. The elevator reaches his floor, the door opens, and stepping out are strangers, slick, graceful, lurking figures in pursuit of evolution’s miracle.

Dark City is on the surface a movie about a suspected serial killer on the run from menacing figures and from an obsessed, overworked, underpaid detective. William Hurt as Detective Bumstead brings a sense of security to the film. He is the sign post in the middle of a raging ocean, quickly recognizing the inconsistencies of human behavior. “What kind of killer stops to save a dying fish?” he asks while surveying the crime scene. So in the midst of chaos and confusion, Proyas give his audience someone to trust, a mind so secure in its knowledge that it must be real.

But as the world falls into a sleep and the wheels beneath the city grind into action, buildings rise from nothing while others twist and turn, transforming themselves into thematic variations of the norms. And the strangers move gracefully through the city, implanting new memories into the sleeping fools, each helpless creature unaware of their lot in life. But tonight, not all goes as planned. There is an opposing force working against the machines. Amidst the gathering of strangers, we learn that these beings operate as a collective consciousness.

As Murdoch walks through the silent streets, banging on cars screaming, “Wake up! Wake Up! Can’t anybody hear me? Wake up!” it becomes clear that Dark City has more on its mind than mere mystery. Running in circles, Murdoch searches for answers; he searches for himself. But he is not alone; there is a woman. We meet Emma first from behind. Singing to a subdued crowd backed by a jazz band, Emma, Jennifer Connelly just before her powerful turn in Aranofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, brings color to this world. Clad in green dress and surrounded by soft lighting, she is a woman in love, in pain.

The chase for a killer transforms itself, like the subconscious mind filled with new memories, into a movie about individuals searching for meaning. As Murdoch searches for himself, detective Bumstead searches for a killer; Emma searches for her lover, while the strangers search for the soul. And as the world transforms itself night after night, the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle slowly link together revealing little by little an intricate portrait of humanity’s struggle with itself.

Proyas, though, understands that within all great stories of man searching for himself, there must be an anchor, there must be a heart. At the center of it all stand Emma and John. Each “fashioned on stolen memories,” they fight for what they believe is real, for what their instincts tell them is true. “Instincts are irrational,” the strangers say. But this is their failure, this is their mistake. The study of the human creature is the study of irrationality; and when the glass shatters, all that is left is the passionate embrace, the sensuous kiss fueled by the irrationality of the beating heart.

for the want of a soul

Dark City explores the depths of human obsession, and it poses the questions that for some reason we cannot answer. Ultimately, we are who we are, we see what we want to see, and we hope there is something more awaiting us. But if we do have the power to transform our worlds, and we are intelligent enough to reshape our reality; we must remember that the anchor is always somewhere inside. Somewhere within the power awaits.

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