Alex Proyas’s Dark City (1998) is science fiction wearing the skin of noir, riffling through its drawers and playing with its accessories as misdirection—or commentary?—while the actual plot unfolds. The “neo-noir” is a popular film style in SF; Dark City is only one of the movies to use it but was among the most effective and lasting, possibly because of the film’s intense pace and highly memorable setting.
As for me, I’m a pretty big fan of Dark City and also of the noir genre—I’ll read Raymond Chandler any day, and I have a weakness for the theatricality of noir, the exaggerated grittiness and world-weariness of it. (Plus, I have a thing for unsympathetic or unpleasant characters, and noir tends to deliver on that score.)
Dark City isn’t quite noir, as I said before—instead, it’s a movie about aliens and the triumph of the human spirit and psi-phenomena that implies noir through setting, dialogue, stock characters (at first) and a sort of tonal resonance. Proyas uses the trappings of noir that will be familiar to the viewer to create a claustrophobic, steamy, polluted cityscape, always seen in darkness. The fact that, in the narrative, this was the city the aliens chose to create to examine humanity makes it even stranger. Did they, in their dissection of the humans’ memories and culture, find a representation of the city they later created for their zoo? Did the aliens read Chandler?
It’s fun to think about.
The plot itself, however, is more familiarly science-fictional. It’s about a human, shepherded by another human who may as well be the aliens’ pet (but a deceitful one!), evolving similar powers to those of his alien captors to take them out—with lots of talk about the uniqueness of the human individual mind, what makes a soul, “tuning,” and memory. The real story—the aliens chasing down the dangerous but evolved human to attempt to use him to perfect their own existence—could take place in any number of environments. So, if not the main plot, what screams “noir!” about Dark City? It’s the story within the story. Remember, the good doctor and the aliens are “writing” lives for people, putting together backstory like an author does for a character and then injecting the stories into those real live people. So, for every story they write and impose over the actors, there’s a theme and an arc. (The more time one spends thinking about the analogues of storytelling to physical creation in Dark City, the more mind-bending it becomes.) Those layers of story in Dark City are part of what makes it so fascinating, especially to me.
The noir story-elements come in as the shape of the aliens’ concocted plot for John Murdoch: they’ve created memories of him as a killer, memories for his estranged wife the lounge singer, memories for the detective who will hunt him—the thing that they didn’t count on was the failure of his imprinting. The killer personality doesn’t stick. Instead, he’s a lost man wandering through a police investigation of himself, chased by his wife and the detective at turns, as well as the aliens. In a more typical noir story, the lone wolf detective who’s getting close to the killer’s wife would be the protagonist, so we the viewer are experiencing that storyline sideways, from a strange angle. We know the story isn’t real, but it’s still driving the characters as actors in their own created, false lives—and that created story, thanks to the Dr. Schreber and the aliens, is pretty damn noir, which fills out the simple thematic resonance of the setting and filming techniques. Hence, “neo-noir.” It is, and it isn’t.
There are layers in which to enjoy Dark City, from the sheer cinematic quality of it—a perfectly shot film with some of the most beautiful uses of light and dark I’ve ever witnessed on screen—to the twistiness of the implications about creation, to the slightly cheesier bits like how what makes us human is our hearts not our heads (I would disagree, Mr. Murdoch, but all right). It’s a fine movie, and provides a fabulous sideways use of the trappings of noir to tell a science-fiction story; aficionados of either genre who have managed to make it this far without seeing the film should go out and find a copy right this minute. It’ll leave an impression.
I, for one, will always remember the moment Murdoch and Inspector Bumstead break through the brick wall.