A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 231 – Dark City

Dark City – October 17th, 2010

I remember when I first saw this movie, sitting in Andy’s first apartment in Pennsylvania. I remember thinking it was pretty damn cool, but it was late when I’d watched it and I’d missed a few bits and so it felt a little like a puzzle missing a piece or two. It added to its mystery and ambiance at the time. After all, it is a mystery, and it’s a mystery that involves stories being built and people’s whole personalities and lives being pieced together from scratch. It’s about a man who’s missing parts of himself. A city that’s missing more than it knows. So it’s understandable to me that I might leave it, at least at first, feeling like there was something that I overlooked.

As it turns out, I think I must just not have been paying close enough attention. The movie is really rather well put together, but it does something I really love: It makes use of the medium of film to communicate. You can’t follow the plot just by listening to the dialogue. You need to look at the images and the people to know what’s going on. I’d be curious to hear how the movie would be done in DVS, since there’s so much that’s communicated visually. And I’m not just talking about atmosphere, though the atmosphere is very important to the movie and is also very reliant on visuals. I’m talking about the memories. The plot revolves around constructed memories, introduced to people in a flood all at once. Watching those memories flash by tells someone seeing them a whole lot, but the purpose is to show little bits of information quickly, faster than they’d be communicated by someone speaking. Eliding them into “visions of a childhood spent at the beach” wouldn’t tell someone nearly enough. So I’m curious. It’s a movie that takes the audio and the video and uses both to great effect.

Something else I love about this movie is that it’s a science fiction mystery. It’s scifi noir, and I do love the melding of genres. When it starts it seems as if it’s simply a noirish murder mystery, with a man waking up in a hotel bath tub, no memory of who he is or how he got there or why there’s a dead woman in the room, spirals cut into her skin. Why is he there? Who killed the woman? What’s going on and who is he? But as soon as you meet the Strangers, it’s apparent that this is not just a mystery. Something inhuman is at work here. And soon enough we know some of what it is, but it takes the rest of the movie for it all to come out. Suffice it to say that the city is an experiment, and the people in it unwitting subjects. The Strangers are a dying race of aliens, studying the human soul in hopes of curing what ails them. And so they take people, remove their memories, replace them with others, build them new lives and make them new people and see what happens. But it’s unnatural. And so sometimes the people wake and it hasn’t worked and their minds break. Humans weren’t meant to live like this. John Murdoch has rejected the life he was being given and the Strangers want to know how. He can use the powers they use to reshape the city. They want to find him before he ruins everything.

It doesn’t sound that complicated there, I know. But the way the movie tells it all is through snippets and visions and bits and pieces of memory. John doesn’t have the memories he should have, but he has the trappings of the life he was supposed to have. He hunts down this man he was supposed to be and slowly figures out what’s going on. He has help, of course, but three of the people helping him are working with limited knowledge, since they’re of the city too, and their memories and lives are as constructed as his was supposed to be. There’s the woman who was supposed to be his wife, Emma. There’s Inspector Bumstead, who’s inherited John’s case from another inspector who, as it turns out, also woke up. And has since snapped. Detective Walenski, the other inspector, helps John a bit too. As much as he can before he’s gone. And then there’s Dr. Schreber, a somewhat tragic figure. He’s human, but not really a part of the city. He works for the Strangers, but not willingly, and he is a key to John figuring out what’s happening and finding a way to fix everything. The performances of these characters, as well as the most important strangers, are fantastic. It’s this movie that made me desperately want to see Rufus Sewell as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter movies. He does determined desperation so well. William Hurt and Jennifer Connolly are both excellent, in quiet ways, as Bumstead and Emma, respectively. And then there’s Kiefer Sutherland as Schreber. He’s halting and awkward and hurt, but also triumphant at the end. And of course there’s Richard O’Brien as Mr. Hand, a Stranger who takes a very sinister path, following John through the city. I absolutely adore O’Brien in this.

As the movie progresses, we see the city shift and grow and shrink and change. People disappear from their jobs and reappear in others as if they’d been there the whole time. John searches the city for a way to a beach he thinks he should remember, but the beach is forever unreachable. Like the memories he should have. It can be a little heavy handed, yes, but I don’t really care. After all, the Strangers aren’t the most careful or delicate of creatures. They keep Schreber around because he’s able to deftly meld memory essence into a life, something the Strangers can’t do themselves. So the darkness and heavy handedness is fitting, taken as things the Strangers have constructed. The city itself really gives the movie its fantastic atmosphere. It’s a place where you expect murders to happen. It feels seedy and crumbling and I can’t help but wonder just how much the Strangers could learn from such an unnatural and rotten place. I’ve always thought that any data they got from the human subjects would be twisted by the environment they have the subjects in. But perhaps that was intentional. They’re somewhat twisted creatures themselves anyhow.

Having now seen this movie countless times, I no longer feel lost at the end of it. Yes, there are pieces that aren’t put neatly in place, and the ending is triumphant but not perfect, but that feels right. It doesn’t feel like it’s missing pieces. It feels like there are holes in the puzzle itself. Parts that were never there and so it’s up to us to fill them in. And I rather like that. I like that the movie places the creation of the world squarely in the hands of the inhabitants. That there’s a message that we can create ourselves. That we’re not defined by what other people say we are, but by what we find within. It’s a very stylized movie, and it definitely depends on its visuals to place the audience in this timeless city where it’s always night and things can change in a matter of minutes. But it also has a few fantastic messages that don’t necessarily depend on the visuals. But put it all together and you get something special, and I think I will always love it.

October 17, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , ,

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