Plato and Jennifer Connelly love Dark City (1998)
This movie builds on the writing of the philosopher Plato, to become a deeper and effective allegory about humanity. Since I love my allegories, this movie was right up my alley, but is really strange, and is filled with a lot of noir imagery. Every frame of every scene is filled with symbolism, metaphors and dark noir. The story is about John Murdoch, who awakens in Dark City as an amnesiac, and he goes about trying to figure out who he is and what is going on around him. It’s an allegory, dummy, so good luck right?
This movie has been compared to Plato’s allegory of the cave. It’s essentially the same story. Roger Ebert says so, which I guess means it must be true. The allegory of the cave is concerned with education and perception, the ultimate truth. To begin his allegory, Plato described a group of prisoners chained down in a cave. Their only reality was some passing shadows, which they eventually developed names for. That was reality for them. One of the prisoners escapes and discovers the truth behind the shadows. They find the truth surprising.
The cave prisoners in Plato’s allegory are all of the citizens in Dark City, who have been confined to a weird noir reality instead of a cave. The whole city is always dark. It is damp, dirty and off-color. It is also a lie created by the Strangers to study humanity, but it is reality for the prisoners. John Murdoch escapes, just like the man in Plato’s allegory, but he can manipulate reality, creating his own shadows, to replace those the Strangers created for him. In effect, he discovers that human nature goes beyond images or memories, and that feeling is the highest form of reality.
Roger Ebert and director Alex Proyas give commentary on the Director’s Cut edition DVD of this movie. It is worth the 5 bucks just to hear them endlessly rattle on about the metaphors, symbolism, and meaning behind all the imagery. I will admit that this movie feels heavy. It contains a lot of philosophical stuff, so this is not much of a popcorn action flick. This movie is structured like THX1138 (1971), but contains more philosophy than ideology.
Point of view didn’t really work for me in this movie. I was into John’s discovery and investigation into himself for a while, but the movie breaks from the detective work about half-way in, then there are scenes with a Doctor, a council of Strangers, and other characters, people John doesn’t really know or understand. That’s a big mistake. In a movie about reality, you’d think how the main character perceives everything would be important. In fact, how the other characters perceive the world becomes just as important, which is not surprising, given that everyone is experiencing the same fabricated lie, as in Plato’s cave.
I think either Jennifer Connelly or Kiefer Sutherland gives the best performance of the film. I guess I’d have to give it to Sutherland. Proyas remarks on the DVD commentary about how Sutherland’s audition surprised him, and he really grew to like his take on the character. Sutherland’s character is a doctor, who has a speech impediment, but still has unique knowledge about how the world works. I think he does a great job.
In the end, I think Alex Proyas has made an optimistic movie, although quite a dark and complicated one. John does find answers and discovers the edge of the city, including what it really is. Why the Strangers made such a complicated city of prisoners is never really explained in-depth, and that’s okay. We don’t need exposition up the yin-yang because our imaginations are good enough for that. However, as an experiment on humans, the alien Strangers are completely unable to understand what is really going on, much like the Controllers in THX1138. Most of the time, they stumble around desperately looking for anything helpful, before hitting a giant reset button to do it all over again. I’m not sure, but this may have created the problem they face in the movie, where John is immune to the reset button, maybe cause they’ve used it too many times. John certainly knows that people can’t live being flicked on and off like switches, so he goes about fixing the switch like a psychic madman. That’s probably that most allegorical thing in the movie.
All in all, this is a pretty good movie. However, it is way more allegorical than anything I’ve ever seen, and it is even heavier than THX1138 or 2001: A Space Odyssey. I say that because 2001 is primarily visual, where Dark City has endless amounts of dialogue and scene juxtaposition. THX1138 does its best work with perspective, while Dark City throws in other characters and their ideas. I guess among those three movies, I could understand someone preferring one over the other. It’s a preference thing.
The visual style is where Dark City really shines, and the questions it raises are backed by great performances from everyone. I would say the ending makes you wonder which reality really is the best one, the one the alien Strangers create for the humans, or the one John creates. Both worlds are fabricated, the only difference is that John is now outside the cave.