Parts of DARK CITY make me anxious, but my reaction to the film is much more complex than that. While I typically prefer films that make me laugh or jump out of my seat, DARK CITY gives me two completely opposing reactions. It manages to make me worry, and then it gives me hope. I worry because it hits a little too close to home, but conversely it also allows me to escape this world.
The film itself takes place in a dark world. It is urban and claustrophobic. There are always walls or ceilings around, which combined with the constant dark, erase any feeling of freedom. In this city, there is no opportunity to catch a glimpse of the open sky to daydream. However, just as the film begins we are shown that there is much more than meets the eye. When the clock strikes twelve (with the constant darkness it is not clear if this is noon or midnight) every person in the city loses consciousness. It is as if the entire city falls into a narcoleptic state. When in this dozing state, pale, bald men in long fitted coats and dramatic hats come out of hiding and tinker. They tinker with the city’s layout. They tinker with the interior of your house. And most frighteningly, they tinker with your memories. With the help of a human, Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), they can remove memories of your wife or your childhood, and inject you with a new memory of their newly prescribed life. These beings, called The Strangers, control this dark city. That is, until John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) discovers he is able to stay awake during the big sleep, and realizes that he cannot actually remember the artificial memories they injected him with.
It is these two levels of the city in DARK CITY that bring out my two strong reactions to the film. On one hand the film holds a mirror up to our society so that we can see it at its worst. Its recreation of modern malaise is uncomfortably reminiscent of our world. While we do not live in the neo-noir styled world of Murdoch and Schredber, it can feel like that sometimes. On my worst days I feel trapped by our world. The metaphorical walls I build around myself feel as binding as the literal walls in their city. Seeing Murdoch realize the boundaries of the city are quite real to him brings about the same emotions in me of being trapped. It makes me wonder, for a brief moment, if I too am literally trapped in a city where creepy Strangers float in nightly to nudge my reality around.
It is this glimmer of escapism that leads way to the feeling of hope in DARK CITY. If we are all living in the world of The Strangers, this means that all of our detached depression and frustration may be cured. If every block we run up against is actually manufactured by these tinkerers, then they can be completely reversed as soon as our society finds our Murdoch. And as I am wondering how possible it may be that we are waiting for our Murdoch, it dawns on me that I may be our Murdoch. It is this escapist fantasy that pulls my past angst of Dark City and into the distant world of a life less ordinary.
Many of my favorite films start with relatable premise and a sympathetic character, but then introduce them to a world greater than their own, in which they are central figures. Like Harry in HARRY POTTER, Luke in STAR WARS, and Neo in THE MATRIX these characters get pulled from their boring lives to become saviors of the world. Though I logically know that I won’t be getting an invitation to attend Hogwarts or encounter The Strangers anytime soon, spending time in a world that has more than meets the eye is a fantastic way to spend the day.
The gloomy city in DARK CITY feels all too relatable on bad days. Watching a projection of my projected fears, the worst version of our reality, makes my stomach turn. But DARK CITY also projects hope because it shows a world that is richer and more complex than our own. I can escape the reality of our world to a world that may be just like ours, but with a chance for escape.