This is one of my all-time favorite movies; it is a bleak, surrealistic exploration of the nature of reality. It didn’t do well at the box office, and has been mostly ignored since it’s release in 1998.
The film opens with John Murdoch (played by Rufus Sewel) waking up naked in a bathtub. He has lost most of his memories and even worse, he finds he is wanted for a string of brutal murders, which he may or may not have committed. While trying to unravel the mystery, he uncovers a sinister plot involving malevolent, infinitely powerful beings, The Stangers, using humanity for their nefarious purposes. When Murdoch finally unravels the truth, it is much more horrific than he could have possibly imagined.
Dark City uses many themes from Gnostic Christianity, which was a early, mystical branch, branded early on as heresy by the Orthodox Church and eventually persecuted out of existence. So complete was the extermination of Gnostic thought, that most of what we know came from the discovery of a hidden cache of their documents in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, Egypt. This was perhaps the greatest religious discovery of the 20th Century. Some themes from the writings of the Nag Hammadi library include: reality is an illusion; the material world is corrupt; an infinitely powerful but imperfect being, (named the demiurge, after Plato) is actually the creator of the Earth; human beings, while being made of corrupt matter, contain a divine spark; the only path to salvation is through secret, arcane knowledge.
In the world of Dark City, reality is an illusion: the infinitely powerful and malevolent Strangers continually form and reform reality using the memories and dreams of the denizens who are unaware of what is truly happening and thereby are permanently trapped. John Murdoch is the Christ/Savior/Messiah figure who is able to transcend the illusion and ultimately offer salvation to those trapped within it. He does this by “tuning” which is the ability to step outside the illusion and see reality as it truly is.
If all this sounds sort of familiar, The Matrix also explored these themes, but was released the year after Dark City.
The supporting cast is very good: Jennifer Connelly and William Hurt turn in excellent performances. The only criticism is that Kiefer Sutherland’s character possesses an annoying stammer, which is distracting. But other than that, Sutherland is fine in his role.
The movie raises the question: is it better to know the truth, however horrible? Or is it better to be trapped in a safe, familiar, comfortable illusion permanently, never realizing that it is illusion? For some, illusion is preferable as the truth would drive them mad. But on the other hand, there are those who must know the truth, no matter what the cost and no matter how unsettling.
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Worth a look if you like dark, introspective films dealing with the nature of truth and reality.
Skip it if your favorite director is Michael Bay.
MDE’s Self Appointed Movie Critic