Futuristic Film Noir from… Australia? by Simon Elchlepp
For some months now, I’ve been a man on a mission: finally brushing up on my viewing of Australian films and television series. (I’m sorry to report that television in my home country of Germany doesn’t show much Australian material beyond Crocodile Dundee and McLeod’s Daughters.) Sometimes, however, I find myself buying a DVD, and not even realising it’s Australian until I take a closer look. Such was the case with Dark City (1998).
“But is Dark City Australian?” Good question – Dark City’s gestation is one of those border-crossing origin stories that makes categorisations difficult. Financed by American studio New Line Cinema, headlined by overseas talent (Rufus Sewell, William Hurt, a pre-24 Kiefer Sutherland and Jennifer Connelly) and shot in Sydney with mostly Australians behind the camera, at first sight Dark City looks like a typical runaway production. But the film’s director is Australian Alex Proyas, who nurtured his passion for this project for years, and wrote the screenplay together with The Dark Knight scribe David S. Goyer. Produced by Proyas and Andrew Mason (Tomorrow, When The War Began), Dark City was apparently officially deemed an American film. But looking at how the film came into existence, it seems safe to say that the majority of the creative input going into Dark City came from Australian sources, so for the intents and purposes of this blog, it certainly qualifies.
But all these factors aren’t reasons enough to adore this film. Fortunately, as Dark City’s dedicated fan base including Roger Ebert will tell you, there’s a lot to like about this neo noir thriller. Sure, “neo noir” will have you thinking of numerous other films you’ve seen before: Blade Runner, Batman, Inception, German expressionism and world-weary, trench-coated heroes in eternally dark and rainy cities, searching not only for clues to mysterious murder case, but also for fragments of their own identity.
The dilemma that awaits Dark City’s protagonist John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) at the start of the film will be well familiar to crime thriller devotees. John wakes up next to a female corpse, unable to remember who he is or if he committed the murder. Soon, he’s on the run from a group of pale, Kafka-esque men in black overcoats and Fedoras (look out for an appearance by Bruce “Stork” Spence), who possess psycho-kinetic powers and seem to have more on their mind than just arresting John for a crime he may or may not have committed.
Don’t make the mistake of dismissing Dark City’s style or its substance as a derivative mix of other classic sources. As much as Dark City is Proyas’ homage to films that he admires, he also puts a distinct spin on his influences. A comparison with genre grand-daddy Blade Runner proves insightful. There are no flying cars in Dark City, no gigantic neon-lit billboards stuck to the facades of monolithic skyscrapers. Instead, Dark City is closer to the look of classic film noir: cars look like vintage models from the 40s and 50s, the city’s architecture is a gothic take on art deco design, dilapidated trains run on the city’s subway system, and instead of Blade Runner’s multi-ethnic chants, Dark City gives you sultry jazz numbers (performed by Jennifer Connelly). Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski casts this updated take on film noir tropes in a lighting scheme that matches the art direction’s imaginative, but less fanciful take on a past period: brown brick buildings and green-tiled bathrooms are illuminated by sickly yellow streetlights. Dark City is as deeply cast in labyrinthine shadows as any urban futuristic science fiction film worth its salt, but its down-to-earth, gritty visual approach sets it apart from the pack. It also looks simply gorgeous, courtesy of the myriad arresting details of its design that twist the past to create a surreal place out of time. A side note for home video collectors: make sure to get Dark City in the Director’s Cut version, which removes the theatrical version’s added-at-the-last-minute-by-the-studio introductory monologue that gives away way too much of the enigma at the film’s heart.
While Dark City’s story starts out like many other thriller mysteries, the conspiracy behind the events in the film encompasses a lot more than just underworld crime bosses and corrupt politicians. Most science fiction flicks these days try to impress with bigger and more spectacular visual effects. But the best examples of the genre create a sense of wonder by sticking to an intriguing “What if?” premise and exploring its consequences. This is where Dark City excels. It slowly reveals the layers and layers behind the series of murders that John Murdoch is blamed for and gradually increases the scope of the film’s narrative. And through this process, Dark City creates some unforgettable “oh wow” moments when both John and the viewer realise what’s at stake, particularly the scene in which John witnesses whole city blocks rising out of the ground like organic extensions of an enormous body; a masterstroke of visual effects and sheer imagination. Equally memorable is the film’s finale, which features the most monumental display of psycho-kinetic powers you’ve seen in movies in a long while.
In the end, the plot is revealed to revolve around the nature of reality and memory, in a city where no one can remember their past or a way out of the city, and night is eternal (and actually not just because it looks stylish). Before you ask: no, Dark City was released before another little reality-bending science fiction movie called The Matrix. What further distinguishes Dark City from other films of its genre is the fact that Proyas gives all the big ideas and concepts behind Dark City a personal dimension. The film’s ruminations on how memories make us human not only find shape in the antagonists” great masterplan. They’re also expressed – more poignantly so – in John’s desperate attempts to find out if the memories of his time with his beloved wife are real, or just fabrications – and if so, would that mean that their love wasn’t real as well? It’s in those moments when the personal and the cosmic converge that Dark City is at its most powerful: it’s only in his dying moments that William Hurt realises that the city, the world he’s been living in was nothing but a lie – and the last sight he sees is both so majestic and frightening that it will haunt you long after the film has finished.
About Simon Elchlepp: Simon is the AFI’s Office Coordinator. After a Bachelor in European Media Sciences, he decided to travel down and study a Master in Cinema Management at the University of Melbourne. Outside of work, Simon collects as many films and music albums as his shelves permit and ponders how he can fit a home theatre system in a one-room apartment.
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