Australian filmmaker Alex Proyas’s 1998 film Dark City has been compared to many prior science fiction films, from Metropolis to Blade Runner, but, simply put, it’s better than those films. The comparison to Blade Runner, especially, is inapt, because that film is all style and little substance — a claim made of Dark City, but, in truth, the film is mostly substance, with style about the edges. Yet, the style is so memorable that viewers and critics have had a hard time realizing it is a film that is original fiction, and not based upon a comic strip, as the urban legend goes.
I first saw the film in theaters, over a decade ago, and watched the theatrical version on DVD a couple of times since. But, having heard that there was a new Director’s Cut coming to DVD, I thought it a good time to explore the film, and its alterations, another reason why the fans of sci fi link this film to Blade Runner.
Before I detail the changes to the film, which increased in length from about 95 to 105 minutes, let me go over the basics of the narrative. A man named John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes in a hotel bathtub, and cannot recall even his name at first. He has just awakened while a man named Dr. Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) has tried to inject false memories into his brain, with a large alien syringe, as part of a plot with a group of aliens called The Strangers. These are worm-like energy beings who revive the corpses of the human dead, thus are bald and Nosferatu-like in appearance. The Strangers control a city that never sees sunlight, and seems to span era of American film history from the 1930s through the 1970s (and it’s important to note that the city is not a blend of reality from those decades, but the film-based ‘realities’ of those times — a point no critic seems to have seen). They also recalibrate people’s memories every night at midnight, to test how humans are human. They are from a species that is dying and needs to reinvigorate itself via the human factor. This meme, incidentally, is a staple of early UFO contactee mythos, as well as the later alien abduction mythos, and has been iterated in film since the late 1940s, most famously in classic sci fi B films of the 1950s.
Murdoch is one of the rare humans to ever have awakened during the nightly ‘tuning,’ as The Strangers call their resetting of reality; which also includes changing physical reality via a vast underground complex of machinery. As he finds himself in the hotel, Murdoch seems to have killed a prostitute; but it’s simply the scenario Schreber and The Strangers set up for him. He flees, and discovers that he, too, has incipient tuning powers, and tests himself by visiting a local prostitute — a gorgeous blond, played by Melissa George, who reveals a perfect figure in a brief nude scene. The prostitute’s very gorgeousness plus the fact that she has a young daughter both reveal the film-based element of the scenarios The Strangers use, since most prostitutes are not gorgeous, nor do they have the ‘heart of gold’ personae that allows them to care for young daughters while they ‘entertain’ clients. The Strangers seem to have derived all of their information - or misinformation (thus their confusion over humans) - from thinking human films were all documentaries, not fictions. After leaving the prostitute, after seeing her daughter, Murdoch ends up at his estranged wife’s apartment.