First thing’s first: I love Alex Proyas’s 1998 film Dark City. I really do. Stylistically, the film is nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s that beautiful woman that walks in and causes the entire room to gasp and stare in awe. Not only is it visually arresting, but it hold a reputation for being a deep thinker: it’s regarded as an influence on The Matrix and an adaptation of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Films that look this good and explore concepts of selfhood sell themselves so well that we often don’t question them because, well, they’re good. However, once we start really thinking about some of what goes on in Dark City, the film starts to crumble to the point that with each viewing, I’m now questioning more and more why this film works, looking beyond its beauty for substance. It suffers from some logic issues that we need to talk about, guys. We’re approaching this one category style.
Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink
Suit up, water – you’re up first. So The Strangers dislike water; that part is made pretty damn clear by writers Proyas, Lem Dobbs (who wrote The Limey) and David S. Goyer (also known as the guy that inflicted Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice upon us, as well as the absolutely fecal The Unborn). They hiss, they walk around it, they openly glare at it, they recoil. We get it, they dislike it. The rationale behind this aversion that our writing team provides? The Strangers don’t like water. Nor the sunlight, but that’s another issue altogether that I’m getting to. That’s the only explanation we get: they don’t like it. Nothing more involved like “it causes horrific burns” or “their leader almost drowned on another planet” or even “they drank way too much water one afternoon and proceeded to upchuck it for hours” (not that that’s ever happened to me, no sir). In fact, The Strangers are really passive-aggressive about water: they even advertise trips to Shell Beach as a type of mythological reward for those who are really, really good and well-off, which is fucking with their control population in a strange game of psychological warfare (and opens up the interpretation of notions of salvation and atheism, but we’re not going there today). WHY WOULD YOU SELECT HUMAN BODIES AS A HOST IF YOU HATE WATER SO MUCH?! Human beings are made up of anywhere between 50 and 75% water. Then there’s the sunlight thing: human beings require it, as evidenced by countless exposure studies. So if this species of intergalactic parasite decides to select a host – or even a species to study – why are they picking something that actively requires substances they abhor? Humans need water to survive. That would be like humans picking a new host body that requires cyanide to live as a potential gateway to immortality. Which, yeah, no. Speaking of which….
Here comes the meat wagon…
Well, well, well. Mr. Hand (Richard O’Brien, who, for the record, is fabulous as fuck in this role) informs the audience that The Strangers “use your dead as vessels.” Grave robbers! So, let’s be jerks and ask the logical question: if The Strangers are using human corpses to cart around their true forms, why aren’t the meat casings decomposing? Wouldn’t the stench be a dead giveaway? Wouldn’t stuff start falling out at random points? Admittedly, Mr. Book would be far less intimidating if he lost part of his jaw mid-speech. This bunch looks fairly well-put together for a bunch of stiffs. Unless if they’re swimming in some amazing intergalactic formaldehyde, they’d have to be within-a-few-hours-of-kicking-it level of freshly-dead. This sort of clears up the whole needing sunshine and water thing, but we’re not entirely out of the woods there because the live humans they’re studying – the ones they’re trying to fucking emulate because they’re dying – require it. A dead body can’t continue the life cycle, and for a dying race, why would you engage in an oddball type of necromancy? Really, how can you expect to survive if your body is already dead? Why not just upload yourselves into a computer simulation to live forever if you’re evolved enough to create a populated city in space that you can telepathically stop every night? Then there’s the matter of reproduction. I’m not an expert of Stranger biology, but one would think that a dead body can’t reproduce to carry on its race. Who knows, maybe the toothed squids reproduce via fission, but they’re obviously having serious difficulty with the matter of species survival if they’re playing musical chairs with human memories every night. Oh, and those memories? According to every Stranger, they’re largely incompatible with their biological makeup. In fact, this is what ultimately kills Mr. Hand in the end: his body is incompatible with John’s manufactured memories. Meaning all the switcheroo they’re doing is completely pointless because they can’t string meaning and experience together for themselves. It’s utterly pointless. Which brings me to…
Eye candy as far as the city limits
The women in this film are a joke. Jennifer Connelly’s Emma gets to wear pretty clothes and look sad. Melissa George’s May looks beautiful and has lovely breasts, but she has only a few lines, the most famous of which is her prostitute character refusing to swear (saying “shoot” over “shit”). Everyone else is a suffering wife, either crying or picking her teeth. That’s it. The outfits are nice, and there’s a 40s-style glamour, but the female characters lack depth. Emma doesn’t get to really be anything other than a philosophical purpose: she’s the representation of love, not someone who is loved for who she is. She has no goals, no ambitions, no dreams: she exists solely to be the thing that causes John Murdoch to have a reaction. May exists in even crueler format: she’s placed on display, bought and sold as a prostitute with a great smile and plenty of style, then brutalized when the experiment does not behave in the fashion it was supposed to. She gets murdered because a committee wanted to see what would happen, with no regard for her value as a human being outside of tits and blood. On the masculine side of this spectrum, Baumstead gets to explore grief, Schreber gets to explore rebellion, and John gets to explore evolution and a god complex. By comparison, everyone who is female in this film cries while the men folk perform the actions and solve the mysteries. And really… is that the kind of world we want to endorse? That the women around you are pretty prizes to be won? They’re as deep as puddles (there’s that pesky water again) and ultimately, they’re just window dressing. I’ve said before that Schreber is the femme fatale in this film. Of course he is – every woman at this table is too milquetoast to be interesting.
And finally, the end
The question we’re not asking: if The Strangers were controlling everything and John has since taken over, then what’s going to happen as John (Rufus Sewell) ages and dies? In the end, he’s controlling the sun and creating the beaches. The world is literally dependent upon him remembering to wake up and make the fucking sun rise. He controls the tide and builds the buildings. The sun literally rises and sets for John. John Murdoch is basically god. What happens when god gets too old and punches his ticket? Worse, what if god dies before a backup plan is in place, or god comes down with a degenerative brain disorder? Given, god having a case of dementia would explain a lot of things right about now, but it leaves open the scary possibility of a ton of responsibility being thrown into chaos without the appropriate safety net. What if god gets hit by a bus crossing the street? Does the entire planet die? Does he set it to go on autopilot? What if the machine that controls the planet breaks? What if John starts mixing and matching body parts on new creations and buildings? Is this how we’re getting a new platypus? This is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.
The film is awfully pretty and fun to watch. Just do yourself a favor and don’t think about it too hard. It’s very pretty, but not always very bright.