Dark City

In which an unlikely hero finds a way to turn the tables.

Metaphorically and otherwise.

Metaphorically and otherwise.

Dark City

What a little gem of a movie. A cult hit that’s aged reasonably well, Dark City beat The Matrix to the punch by more than a year, though the lead times on each production are too close for the Wachowskis to have truly ripped it off. Both films are darkly stylized & philosophical sci-fi thrillers which feature a protagonist who’s uniquely gifted to tear down the walls of his artificial world, and learns to develop his new powers while on the run from sinister, inhuman pursuers. Understandably, only the one with amazing kung fu battles & gunplay went on to become a trendsetting blockbuster, but don’t count Dark City out. It has its own pleasures, and culminates in an amazing sequence that stretches the definition of a “fight,” but we’ll see if we can’t tackle it anyway.

A note: if you haven’t seen this yet and my recommendation inspires you to do so, I strongly recommend you seek out the newer Director’s Cut edition. Not only does it have more footage, but most crucially, it cuts out the theatrical version’s opening voiceover (mandated by the studio against director Alex Proyas’ wishes) where one character explicitly spells out about 90% of the film’s backstory, rather than letting the mystery be slowly uncovered. Of course I’m about to spoil pretty much the entire ending for you right now, so.

The Fighters:

  • John Murdoch, the film’s hero; it’s not his original name, if he even has one, but he’s sticking with it. One of the many inhabitants of the Strangers’ artificial world, John is a sudden step forward in evolution: he has the ability to “tune” or telekinetically alter the world around him. Having received only the slightest bit of his planned memory implant, John has spent most of the film as a virtual tabula rasa, but that’s all about to change. Played by Rufus Sewell, in a rare non-villainous role.
  • The Strangers, but mostly their de facto leader, Mr. Book (they all have ominously mundane names like that: Mr. Hand, Mr. Wall, etc), played by Ian Richardson. They can tune as well, of course. Note that their human-like appearance is not their true form: they’re all actually a bunch of creepy worm creatures, inhabiting the bodies of corpses– hence their pale & ghostly visage.
"Tell your sister... you were right about me."

“Tell your sister… you were right about me….”

Kiefer Sutherland, in the middle portion of his career (in-between the Hearthrob and Badass sections) where he was mostly tapped to play Creepy, plays a significant non-action part.

The Setup: The Strangers are home invaders in freaky masks a dying race of alien parasites, who have secluded a large number of humans in a large city where it’s always night and the details (memories, architecture, etc) are manually changed every few hours. Ultimately it’s revealed that this artificial habitat is really an enormous ship out in the depths of space, where the Strangers endlessly experiment with humans to see what makes them thrive.

John Murdoch, however, proves suddenly resistant to the Strangers’ power, and involuntarily fights back just as he’s about to be implanted with the memories of a serial killer. He spends much of the movie on the run, piecing together a past that turns out to be false and discovering the true nature of his world. Eventually, he surrenders himself to the villains when they hold hostage his “wife” Emma– their history together is fake, but he has come to feel genuine affection for her.

The aliens believe that Murdoch is the key they have been searching for, and decide to implant him with memories of their own collective history– effectively making him one of them. They wheel out Dr. Schreber (Sutherland), the doctor who invented the process of creating artificial memories in a test tube (a wonderfully wacked idea) and has since turned against his coercive masters to clandestinely help Murdoch throughout the movie. As the Strangers turn away to shut down their reality-warping machine for good, a seemingly docile Schreber explains his instructions to John… but he’s got other plans.

Since this was pre-Jack Bauer, being tied down while Kiefer Sutherland stands over you with a sharp object wasn't nearly as terrifying as it is now

Since this was pre-Jack Bauer, being tied down while Kiefer Sutherland stands over you with a sharp object wasn’t nearly as terrifying as it is now

Schreber switches out the Strangers’ syringe with one of his own making, which John had pocketed earlier after being too wary to trust the doctor. Murdoch is injected with the mystery needle instead, and immediately a series of rapid-fire images with static around the edges (the movie’s established language for flashbacks and memories) starts up. At first it’s the fake “John Murdoch” life the protagonist was originally supposed to have– pleasant upbringing at the seaside until parents die in a fire, and so forth– but a version of Schreber (but more confident, free of the real doctor’s speech impediment and slight disfigurement) keeps recurring: as one of John’s teachers, a firefighter who saves him, a flower vendor on his first date, etc.

"Remember class, the terrorists are only Muslim in even-numbered seasons."

“Remember class, the terrorists are only Muslim in even-numbered seasons.”

As the adult John twitches at receiving an entire lifetime of memories at once, finally the varying Schrebers solidify into one who explains himself with the magnificently bonkers line “You’re probably wondering why I keep appearing in your memories, John. It is because I have inserted myself into them.”

The memory-Schreber explains to John even more fully the nature of the Strangers, the power they share with John, and the machine that is fueled by it. He tells Murdoch, and the audience, that this specialized memory implant is a shortcut to give John a lifetime of instruction on and practice with tuning (previously, he’d only tuned instinctively, and in minor ways)– hey, kind of like downloading kung fu skills directly into your brain. He tells John that he can take control of his destiny, as long as he’s willing to act.

Back in the real world, the Strangers can tell something is wrong, and discover Schreber’s switcharoo… but it’s too late. John comes to, wills the table he’s strapped to upright, and melts his bonds away to step free.


“Now *I* have tuning powers. Ho, ho, ho.”*

Lucy, you got some splainin’ to dooooooo

The Fight: As soon as John is free, the film’s score dives right into the full rendition of a composition it’s been teasing throughout the movie– one that’s been so ubiquitous in trailers and bad YouTube re-edits since then, you’ve surely heard it before even if you’ve never seen Dark City. Despite all the years of repetition, though, it’s lost none of its wild energy, sounding both inspiring and chaotic.

Murdoch wastes no time in putting his newly mastered powers to work. He unleashs a psionic blast that scatters several of the Strangers ahead of him, which makes the remaining villains scared and aggressive. Proyas visualizes tuning on-screen in an effective if not particularly original way: as shimmering ripples of otherwise invisible force, flinging people about wildly and often tearing up the scenery.


John frees Schreber and turns his attention back to the Strangers just in time to get blasted himself by Mr. Book, seemingly the only alien willing to stand his ground. Seemingly unhurt, Murdoch gets back up and returns fire. Visibly angered, Book changes up tactics a bit by ripping open the floor in front of John (which he seems to deflect before it gets to him) and dragging jagged beams up from underneath (which narrowly miss their target).

Rather than continuing to trade blows, the two eventually switch to a full-out mental arm wrestling contest, their psychic energies clashing in the middle.

I'd watch a lot more Presidential debates if they looked like this.

A lot more people would watch Presidential debates if they looked like this.

As their brain battle rages, the resulting feedback starts damaging the area around them, ripping huge chunks out of the building and even somewhat reversing the gravity (!). The few Strangers who haven’t fled (why didn’t anybody help Book?) are lifted into the air.

Soon enough, Book and Murdoch float out of the ceiling and confront each other in the sky.

"MISTER Anderson!"

“MISTER Anderson!”

Mr. Book changes things up again by hurling a nasty-looking dagger at his foe, but despite the added telekinetic push, John is able to stop it just shy of his head, then flip it around and return to sender.


If it had hit, it would have hurt only slightly more than my hangover on Thanksgiving 2006.

Mr. Book takes it in the chest and goes tumbling backward, end over end. Murdoch tunes a nearby water tower to rise up high into his enemy’s flight path. Book collides with the new obstacle and, because the parasites are vulnerable to water, the creature piloting Book’s corpse dies shortly after. Go humans!

In many ways, there’s not much to the actual battle: a few psychic punches, a lot of yelling, a light show and what’s frankly a distant second in the cinematic annals of Tossing A Dagger Back & Forth (telekinetic powers are neat and all, but ultimately it’s all in the reflexes). Plus, the other Strangers’ lack of participation is glaring, there’s no logical reason for Schreber to be there, and if we’re being honest, the floating at the very end looks at least a little bit silly.

But looking past the petty stuff, there’s something really glorious about this sequence. As Schreber’s plan quickly becomes apparent there’s a palpable, electric excitement; you finally get to see John Murdoch realize his potential– if not his destiny— and turn the tables on his tormentors. That there’s still an element of danger as he takes his matured powers into battle makes his final victory all the sweeter; I daresay this scene is even more gratifying and well-handled than its equivalent at the very end of The Matrix.

Once again we’ve proven that while the execution of the actual fight is important, the buildup and emotional context can often be just as critical, if not more so. Dark City’s climax thrills like few others.

[Also, the movie is, along with many other things, essentially a superhero origin story. After swearing to give those a break I basically just did another one. Crap.]

Grade: A-

*Blogger Comment: I feel like I’ve paraphrased the “machine gun” quote from Die Hard about five times, but a quick site search makes it seem like it’s just the second. Either way, I’m not stopping any time soon, hope you’re used to it by now. Die Hard rules.

Coming Attractions: We get a lot more Studi-ous.

He’s quite the hearty warrior.