In the opening scene of Dark City, a man named John Murdoch awakens in a dingy hotel bathtub with no recollection of who he is, where he is, or how he got there. As he gets dressed and prepares to leave, he sees the body of a young woman gruesomely murdered and the weapon left behind. Murdoch knows he isn’t the murderer, but who else could it be? He has little time to dwell on it before the police arrive, and he must flee the scene. Outside, he is greeted by a vast and weird city where it is always night, and that seems to come out of some nightmarish and expressionist version of every major city that ever existed in the 1930s and 1940s. As he heads deeper into the city, his memories begin to come back, one by one. He knows he has a wife, Emma. He knows that they were in love, but she cheated on him. He knows there is a place called Shell Beach that he feels drawn to, yet he cannot remember where it is. Nobody he talks to can, either.
Things get weirder when, at the stroke of midnight, everybody in the city falls asleep except for himself, and a race of cadaverous people known as the Strangers emerge. Clad in fetishistic black leather trenchcoats, looking like they were cast from the same twisted mold, and sporting names like Mr. Sleep, Mr. Hand, and Mr. Book, the Strangers possess frightening psychokinetic powers. They use them to reshape the city every night, transforming buildings, making new ones sprout up, making other ones go away…and rewriting the memories of everyone in the city. A tycoon one day becomes a pauper the next, with a complete mental backstory to go with it. Only…Murdoch is strangely immune to this. What’s more, he also seems to possess the same psychic powers that the Strangers do: telekinesis, telepathy, clairvoyance, and more. The Strangers know Murdoch is different, and are after him. And so his chase into the city of night continues, seeking secrets behind secrets, knowing that whatever memories he does have are a lie, and whatever truth underpins the city is something bigger than anybody is really prepared for.
The story of Dark City is definitely strange and perhaps even hard to follow. There are two versions of it. The original 1998 theatrical version features a heavy-handed explanation of the entire story before the movie even begins, proof that the studio didn’t have enough confidence in the audience to understand what it was about to see. A director’s cut, released in 2008, does not have this preamble, as well as some 15 minutes of extra and extended scenes. If you can, see the director’s cut. It far supercedes the theatrical version, but both are well worth your time.
This is an intensely inventive movie with a visual sense drawing heavily from movies like Metropolis and Blade Runner, while establishing an identity very much its own. The entire movie has a kind of twisted fever dream quality to it, designed to never let you let down your guard, to never feel at ease. You know this world is out of whack somehow, too, and until you understand why, your mind will grapple with the details it is presented with, vainly reaching for answers, much like Murdoch does. Dark City immerses you in the themes of not being able to trust your own memory, knowing that you are within a prison even if you can’t see what the prison is, and living under the occupation of an all-power and malevolent force to which you are but a plaything. And at every turn, this is reinforced by a stunning visual display that seems like it could only ever take place within the deepest recesses of a forgotten dream.
For me, the movie’s moment of truth isn’t actually in the movie proper. Rather, it is the trailer, which to this day remains one of my favorite coming attractions promos ever. It is a two-minute survey of every strange detail this movie has to offer, but presented against a forboding, industrial-gothic soundtrack, with no dialogue. It feels like a music video for a song about that nightmare you had about being lost in the city when you were a kid. It’s the kind of thing where even if you never see the movie, but you see the trailer, you are still coming out ahead.
The trailer still works for me because it conveys in a short time a bewildering mix of visual fragments that by the time we finish, we wonder…what the hell did we just see? You really want to know more, but with what you have been given, that is impossible. This is Murdoch’s struggle in a nutshell. He knows he possesses vast and crucial knowledge to this city and everyone in it. He just can’t put it in the right sequence, and he doesn’t have everything he needs. He awakes being made to think he is insane. As he refuses to go back to sleep, he wonders if he really will lose his mind. The more we learn of the world he is in, the less we can tell which is worse—the false psychosis he was meant to believe, or real one he might visit upon himself.
Dark City ends on a note that is supposed to feel triumphant, but we realize that the falseness of this world persists. Every living memory here is not genuine. Maybe one day it will be, but for now, everything everybody remembers is just somebody else’s version of the past. The more certain you are of a memory, the more likely it is that you’re wrong about it. Memory is like that, which is what makes it so powerful…and so terrifying.