May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
September 24, 2008
I have always had a hard time deciding whether or not I actually like Dark City. On the one hand, it closes with a ramshackle sense of hope, one that rides a tightrope between cartoonish versions of determinism and nihilism. I agree with Peter Chattaway that the director’s cut of the film refocuses some of the philosophical questions raised by Dark City‘s mental messiah, making them even more problematic. On the other hand, the Metropolis eruptions and architectural apocalypses are mesmerizing. Dark City is a noir paradise, its palette, background noises, and uncrossable edges slowly rising in form to meet its sci-fi crescendo. It was passed off by many as style over substance, which I think is a misreading of its noir influences that prize style as version of substance. One of the first definitions of noir includes the word “oneiric,” a fancy word for dreamlike, and this characteristic of the genre matches the thought world of the film, especially in its turn towards ambiguity at the end (cf. the Borde and Chaumeton book on Noir).
What I do like about Dark City, despite the fact that its deepest ideas are fairly shallow, is the way in which it consistently develops as a noir film in spite of its apocalyptic intentions. In his 1970s essay on noir, Schrader pinpoints hopelessness as the noir thematic sine qua non, which the Dark City director’s cut has in spades (more establishing shots, more inner conflict ascribed to its protagonist). Similar to the mood of Bladerunner, the film is an exercise in urban anxiety, all of its sordid angles writ large. The story, as I hope you already know, is about how John Murdoch finds a way to overcome the aliens and release humanity from their big experiment. But it is also about an escape from the city as it is, a way out of its dominating form. The new city, complete with sun, sand, and sea is just as artificial as their old town, but the noir hopelessness has now been overcome at least in form. Regardless of the philosophical or moral problems raised by John’s abilities, he has transformed an actual city, not an imaginary one. The preoccupation with the odd roots of the city at the end of the film seem to underscore that whatever John does, he is reorganizing things on an existing canvas. Since noir deals with archetypes, Dark City has its own character arc – it has been released from the same endless manipulation as its citizens. John’s machinations are just as artificial as the alien’s, but the end result is trading one city and communal memory for another, which isn’t that removed from the processes of history as we know it. So it is ambiguous and stylized, but the formal movement from noir hopelessness to sci-fi apocalypse makes sense out of it all.