One of the greatest terrors of the urban environment is a loss of identity. When people moved out from small towns and villages into the clustered mass of a big city, they also found themselves vanishing into the anonymity of that sheer vastness. The streets daily filled with people going about their business, buildings around them stretching into the sky. Stores that cater to tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of shoppers a day. A world where no one remembers you and no one notices you.
The world of the city is also an ever changing one. Buildings are constantly being demolished to make way for new ones. Construction is always going on, especially in boom periods. The landscape of the city changes. Its face and texture rearranging themselves constantly”
This is the world of the city, an urban dystopia or an urban utopia, depending on your perspective. In “Dark City” it is most definitely a dystopia. A true world without memory. If the city stripped away the traditions of the country, the jobs and houses passed from father to son, reducing you to your assigned job and title in the bowels of a vast echoing urban bureaucracy or the fiefdoms or its vast corporations, Dark City does this literally.
The world of “Dark City” is a trap, a prison, a circular urban plan from where there is literally no exit. If the average city is often a kind of unintentional sociological experiment, “Dark City” is a deliberate one. An experiment to discover the nature of the human soul. Sociologists often explored the structure of a city by way of class. In “Dark City” the experiment is advanced enough to pull a “Prince and the Pauper” scenario every night, turning rich into poor and the poor into rich and rearranging people’s social circumstances and memories to shape new identities for them. The ultimate experiment in urban sociology.
Like a number of films that came out in the last days of the 20th century and the former millenium, including the “Matrix”, “The Thirteenth Floor” and “eXistenZ”, “Dark City” was fundamentally concerned with the nature of reality. The end of the 20th century represented a watershed moment of cultural anxiety. The internet was exploding, the end of the Cold War had removed a pervasive threat that had helped provide a sense of identity to Americans and the future seemed strange and unknown. Playing with the nature of reality was inevitable. Like the Y2K panic, such fears represented the very real anxiety of venturing into the unknown reality of the future, from the reality of our here and now.
Those fears were neither contemptible nor wrong. Today we live in a world where privacy has in many ways all but disappeared, where the next generation is living their lives online beginning in their teen years and where we are constantly threatened by terrorist incursions in our cities. Telecommunications are everywhere linking us in a great invisible web, but security is nowhere. Seven years later the world no longer looks the same as it did in the far more naive times when “Dark City” was crafted.
So is the question “Dark City” asks. Who are we? Are we our memories or our souls. If we detach the details of class, culture and nurture; who will we become as a result? Are we infinitely malleable, or do we have innate unalterable properties that recur regardless.
Director Alex Proyas creates a beautiful but haunted metropolis in which to ask that question. Like many dystopias it echoes the classic urban architecture of the 20’s, the period of the zenith of urban architecture and at the same time often its darkest hour. Urban centers of the time were often soot stained and their skies were darkened by the smog of pollution rising from smokestacks. Dark City’s city is literally dark. Blacker than night with no escape from it.
John Murdoch, played competently by Rufus Sewell, is seeking to escape not only the city, but his own mind. The evidence around him says he is a murderer. He has no memory of who or what he is. But the city is really a space station, inescapable. Murdoch can only transcend the physical structure of his memories and the physical structure of the city with the force of his own identity. Devoid of purpose, he has power. Devoid of a plan, he has a destiny.
If John Murdoch is the moral tabula rasa, the blank slate of humanity, innately decent, but with no understanding of the world around him, Dr. Schreber possesses the understanding but lacks the moral center to openly resist the city’s alien masters. It is only when Schreber inserts himself into Murdoch’s memories that their union produces a man capable of resisting the alien occupiers. Injecting Murdoch with specially crafted memories, Schreber inserts himself in every memory to teach Murdoch what he needs to know to fight back and win. Instant nurture in a needle. Schreber becomes Murdoch’s conceptual father.
Liberated from the city and from memory, Murdoch brings light to the city and water, both symbols of life. The city is a collection of details, memory too is a collection of details. Times and places and locations. Everyone in “Dark City” possesses a full collection of these memories, that are artificially injected by Schreber in service of the aliens. These memories attempt to define people, but they have neither reality nor substance. A man might be a police officer one night and an assassin the other and a sidewalk vendor on the third.
“Dark City” defines the struggle between memory and soul. The showdown concludes with the destruction of memory. With the aliens destroyed by Murdoch, everyone is left with their irrelevant memories, to live in a new world, and a city damaged by Murdoch’s battle against the aliens.
The Dark City and memory are both innately physical structures. They are replaced by light and water and soul, innately spiritual ones. The aliens’ experiment was to see if Murdoch would become a killer, simply because the identity of a killer had been crafted for him. Murdoch’s soul though superseded it choosing to be true to his nature, rather than to the physical identity of the city.
Murdoch’s memories begin with the beach and his quest ends there. The beach is where the land meets the sea. The intersection point of the natural world that rises up beyond the city. Having transcended the physical, both in learning to tune and in defying the artificial identity he was saddled with, Murdoch opens the door for the embrace of a pure humanity undiluted by the artificacts of urban civilization.