A very interesting, and very under-appreciated, film from 1998 is Dark City. It is a work of striking originality and creativity that transcends the conventional categories of “genre” combining science fiction, mystery and noir to offer a unique look at the nightmare of perpetually sustainable imprisonment as well as the breaking out of it.
Like a Freak in the Room
A man awakens in a bathtub in a seedy hotel room. He is not only literally naked, but so are his memories as he doesn’t remember a thing about when or how he got here. He wipes some blood from his forehead, puts on some clothes and in digging through his pockets he finds the name “J. Murdoch” – this must be who he is – and a postcard to a place called Shell Beach. Then, the phone rings and the caller urges Murdoch to leave the room for there are some dangerous men after him. Just then Murdoch sees a bloody corpse, apparently given some morbid ritual treatment, and flees in terror just as mysterious black suited men arrive.
Quite a beginning to the film. It is a very good representation of someone breaking out of an established paradigm – cold, dark and alone. Those who must be keeping the paradigm in place don’t like it when their established boundaries are breached, thus they quickly move in to deal with the escapee. The corpse in the room, however, still needs explaining.
It turns out that there is a serial murderer of prostitutes in the city and the police (who are not the mysterious black suits) think it is Murdoch – the assumption makes sense after receiving information of him being in a room with the latest victim. Though, Murdoch cannot remember anything, let alone the six plans for murder which were apparently carried out to completion. Various people around town seem to remember Murdoch: the clerk at the hotel’s front desk and a staff member in a diner who gives Murdoch back the wallet he left the last time he was there.
The diner is called the “Food Automat” and serves food in a manner akin to a vending machine, only it is a person who places the orders in the slots for pick-up. This is one of two key elements of foreshadowing in this scene. The other one is when Murdoch can’t seem to open the small latch to get his wallet and accidentally emits some sort of energy from his forehead – right from where the blood was earlier – and breaks the glass. From his wallet he finds out his full name, John Murdoch, and his home address to where he goes next. There, his wife, Emma, remembers him but he doesn’t remember her. Emma says that Murdoch left in a huff three weeks ago after finding out that she was having an affair. Inspector Bumstead of the city police shows up to question Murdoch, but he swears that he is not a killer – he had even solicited a prostitute right after the diner to “see if I had it in me” but he couldn’t kill her or even go through with being a regular client. Murdoch escapes from the apartment building by using that mysterious power seen earlier – he “imagines” a door into existence, which promptly disappears after he passes through it, leaving Inspector Bumstead stumped. However, it is outside where things get really interesting.
The City and the Strangers
The city has several bizarre characteristics. First, the opening shot travels down from space and very soon after the stars fade we see ambient city lights and then building tops suggesting a very fast descent. The city also seems to be in perpetual night and every light source is artificially generated. That is further accentuated by the film noir style cinematography.
Second, is the real bizarre and scary thing. Murdoch sees everyone fall asleep at the exact stroke of midnight – drivers, pedestrians, shopkeepers, etc… – everyone except John Murdoch who is now baffled beyond imagination. Things only get more confusing when buildings start to grow out of the ground transforming entire parts of the cityscape. This happens several times in the film and no one seems to notice after waking up on cue the same way that they fell asleep. In fact, some people wake up in transformed houses, with new clothes and new accents, yet oblivious to everything that was just minutes ago.
The call that Murdoch had received at the beginning of the film was from Doctor Schreber who ultimately gives Murdoch the answer that he is looking for. In the regular DVD version of the film (not the director’s cut), Schreber starts the film with a narration giving hints about the city, thus it is suggested that he knows more than most people do. The fact is that he is actually working for the Strangers – the black suits – but has been secretly looking for a time to rebel. The night that Murdoch woke up in the hospital was during the nightly “tuning” (as it is called) when everyone is supposed to sleep, but to Schreber’s surprise, Murdoch awoke and thus ended up with no new memories, but a blank slate since Schreber was about to inject him, but had hesitated when he saw Murdoch begin to awaken.
Schreber reveals, “I call them the Strangers. They abducted us and brought us here. This city, everyone in it… is their experiment. They mix and match our memories as they see fit, trying to divine what makes us unique. One day, a man might be an inspector. The next, someone entirely different. When they want to study a murderer, for instance, they simply imprint one of their citizens with a new personality. Arrange a family for him, friends, an entire history… even a lost wallet. Then they observe the results. Will a man, given the history of a killer, continue in that vein? Or are we, in fact, more than the sum of our memories?”
The Strangers are a dying breed of alien parasite that actually controls the anthropomorphic black suited bodies that are looking for Murdoch. The Strangers had detected Murdoch since he has their ability to “tune,” meaning he can change things by will alone. That was how he broke the glass in the diner and how he created a door from thin air to escape Bumstead earlier in the film. It is also how he is able to resist the mechanisms that run the city – he “awoke” as the Strangers put it. People have awoken before, but they have behaved “erratically, wandering like lost children” since their “imprinting does not work.” Also, in addition to the tuning each night, the Strangers can put individual people to sleep at will with a wave of their palm –“Sleep” and the target just drops.
Very interesting use of terms there. “Imprinting” is basically just brainwashing that prevents people from seeing the truth – it keeps them trapped in the established monopoly of deceptions. The reference to children can be a link to Original Nobility, albeit a tragic one as these people completely lose their minds after their perception takes such a unexpected and drastic change – they were not born noble into a noble existence, but suddenly reverted back to innate nobility in a place where such things have been long since suppressed. And sleep is essentially the opposite of what Murdoch does in the film, not once does he fall asleep – he stays active and searching for answers until the very end.
Inspector Bumstead is also present in this scene of revelations. He had doubted Murdoch’s guilt from the very beginning after finding a goldfish in the tub in the first hotel room. Murdoch had accidentally knocked over a fish tank, but put the fish in the tub to save it. From this, Bumstead got the hunch that Murdoch couldn’t be the serial killer of prostitutes, but he still proceeded as a cop and treated Murdoch like a suspect. He was breaking out of the paradigm in his own way, but this was only as a result of Murdoch’s unexpected awakening. During his investigation, Bumstead had also spoken with his former partner, Walenski, who seems to have gone totally nuts. Walenski locked himself in his own room and drew all sorts of bizarre doodles and talked about “them” without offering anything specific. In short, Walenski is “wandering like a lost child” after awakening from the state imprinted into his mind by the Strangers. Essentially, he is the crazy conspiracy theorist in all of his follies – realization, fear, but no action – no Kampf. Walenski eventually kills himself and his story arc makes him the opposite of Murdoch.
Schreber’s revelations continue, “When they first brought us here, they extracted what was in us and stored the information, remixed it like so much paint, and gave us back new memories of their choosing. But they still needed an artist to help them. I understood the human mind better than they ever could, so they allowed me to keep my skills as a scientist… because they needed them. They made me delete everything else. Can you imagine what it’s like to erase your own past?”
And so, no one has any sort of real memories. All are engineered and implanted as part of the Strangers’ experiment, whose ultimate goal is to uncover the truth of the human soul. The Strangers’ experiment is also highly reminiscent of Transhumanism.
Arya vs. Zion
Thus, the final pieces of the puzzle fall into a place: a race of manipulative parasites, that very much resembles the appearance of real life Hasidim, herd kidnapped people so as to data mine from their brains the essence of their soul, which is something immortal and not in the final steps of decay as are the Strangers. They created the entire city for this one goal and each nightly tuning is their experiment proceeding one more step.
Previously, unexpected variables have been swiftly dealt with, however, Murdoch is quite the exception to all of this. The blood on his forehead in the beginning and from where the energy beams are emitted from is the exact spot where the tilaka is worn in Hinduism.
The tilaka is a symbol of spiritual enlightenment and some of the more conspicuous variants of the tilaka are worn by Vaishnavites, or followers of Vinshu. Adolf Hitler is believed by many, most notably Savitiri Devi, to have been an avatar of Vinshu. The character arc that Murdoch goes through is much akin to Hitler’s – becoming aware of a false paradigm and struggling to free the people trapped inside. Their enemies are the perpetuators of said paradigm; a group completely absorbed in their selfishness ready to dispose of anything that prevents them from serving it.
The film’s title screen contains spirals, which also appear during the film in Walenski’s doodles and on the ritualistically murdered woman’s body. However on the dead body they are revealed to actually have been drawn on, thus making them just as “real” as the doodles. The Strangers killed the woman, staged a ritualized murder scene and then tried to put Murdoch in the situation with only the memories of a killer in order to see if he’d actually go and kill with these fake memories. However, Murdoch awoke before the experiment could continue. The idea of a spiral has some key resemblances to the fractal concept I discussed in the review/analysis of Devil, insofar as both a fractal and a spiral can continue forever. The spiral is a symbol of one preset path into and from infinity for the people trapped in the Dark City – they don’t know of anything before and certainly had no hopes for forging their own way until Murdoch, the Aryan, awoke and started the struggle against the Strangers. Murdoch’s awakening also akin to John Preston’s breaking of conditioning in Equilibrium. A spiral maze for rats also appears on Schreber’s office – this is effectively a microcosm for Dark City: both are psychological experiments on living things.
Murdoch had been trying to find Shell Beach and one of the key steps of realization is that no one seems to remember how to get there, not even a cab driver. It is Schreber who finally takes Murdoch and Bumstead there, but there is no beach, just a billboard on a wall at the end of an alley. Murdoch and Bumstead start to break the wall down despite Schreber’s protests and they reveal…
…the final truth about Dark City. It is literally a holding pen, albeit with a complex design, for humans, but more importantly their minds. The people are trapped in every sense of the word: in space, in time, in mind – their whole world is an engineered reality and thus the Strangers think that they can snare the essence of their life with this highly calculated confinement.
As part of their effort to track Murdoch, the Strangers had injected one of their brood with Murdoch’s memories. By knowing his past, they wish to be able to determine each and every future step that he’ll take. This experiment doesn’t prove useful as they just end up going to Shell Beach and finding Murdoch, but they must have know that this was his goal from the planted postcard. They even arrive after Murdoch and Bumstead make the hole in the wall to reveal space, thus their attempt at mimicking a real human being failed quite miserably. From this we can also see that the Strangers have effectively conceded in “snaring” the essence of the human (soul, spirit, etc…) and actually just planned to imitate it, make a copy – more fakery.
Note that the entire setting for the film is one big fakery as the final twist reveal, thus it is highly doubtful that any sort of authenticity was the Strangers’ goal. Also, all of the light sources in the film are artificial light, the source of the swastika symbol has not been made part of this fake reality. Characters only recall the concept of day when asked about it by Murdoch and this is only distant memories, but we know all of these to have been engineered. The Strangers also fear water and Schreber’s only place of solace and peace from his work is in a pool that just happens to have a sun icon above it. This was probably done by the Strangers to appease him as he is working to for them, but he is not a total sellout as he very willingly helps Murdoch as soon as he sees him awakened. The Strangers hating water and the sun effectively makes them an absolute opposite of what life on Earth is: based on Sun and Water – the real paradigm – fire and water, not engineered clockwork.
Zion Falls, Arya Rises
In a final duel of mental powers, Murdoch sends the lead Stranger flying into a water tower, killing him. Then, using the Strangers’ machine, he creates a whole mass of water that bursts through the city walls and now the city boundary is not an imposing prison-like wall, but an ocean view. Murdoch then rotates Dark City and…
…essentially changes it to Sun City. Both the sunrise and creation of ocean are a step back to the natural Earth system of fire and water. The city is still an illusion run by absolute power, but in the capabilities of an Aryan this leads to light and freedom. Seeing how Murdoch had moved the entire city to cause the sunrise, he may soon move it down to a real planet or even back to Earth, but that would be the next chapter in this fictional universe. The struggle for freedom was in this one, and it was won.
Much about the film is left to speculation. What of the Strangers’ home planet? How did such an advanced and capable species fall into decay and desperation? I would guess that were just always anti-Kampfers, a race that tries to get things done for them instead of actually doing the required work. Right before the city rotates sunward, the Stranger who was implanted with Murdoch’s memories in order to be able to track him, says that the human imprint is “not agreeable” with him. The Strangers’ goal of obtaining the human soul (or just the human condition) is revealed to have ultimately been a delusion this whole time. Thus, it is no surprise that Aryanism is way out of their reach and the Stranger then winces and hides in the last remaining pocket of darkness to die as sunlight washes over the city.
The Strangers’ decay was the inevitable doom brought about by their methods. By pursuing real goals and ideals and actually working for them actively, a civilization lives into greatness. By fakery and manipulation, a civilization becomes as unreal as the lies they sell in order to be able to live. Or as Hitler put it: “Man has become great through perpetual struggle. In perpetual peace his greatness must decline.” Peace doesn’t mean “absence of war” here, but absence of living for something. If this goal is base and primitive (e.g. getting high, feel good hippie orgies, etc…) then man keeps his status on a low level, he remains an Untermensch. However, if the goal is idealistic and honestly pursued – Kampf – then man rises to greatness.
Lastly, the longer and much more sensationalist film that most people are familiar with would be The Matrix, which came out almost exactly a year after Dark City. Not only was The Matrix drawn out over three and increasingly long-winded films that amounted continuous stylized violence that made less and less sense story-wise, but that trilogy has some key parallel’s with Dark City that seem to have been directly lifted. However, the kicker is that the whole Matrix franchise was originally stolen by Hollywood from its original writer, Sophia Stewart, who won a lawsuit in November 2009.