I’m thrilled to participate in Blog of the Darned’s Blogathon from Another World because it gave me the perfect reason to finally watch the Director’s Cut of Dark City (1998). As I watched and researched for this post, I discovered details that link this science fiction (SF) thriller to film noir even more fully and compellingly than I knew.
Back in 1998 — the year before The Matrix (1999) was released, using a few set pieces from Dark City and more than a few of its ideas — I was into SF but not into noir. Of course, that means I was a fan of Blade Runner (1982) without really understanding its noir elements as such either, though I could see similarities between Blade Runner and Dark City. All three films owe plenty to the history of SF literature, film, and television, i.e. The Twilight Zone.
In terms of theme and message, Dark City is more SF than noir; but in terms of plot and visual style, it’s far more noir than SF. There are relatively few special effects, and tone is established through pointedly noir mise en scene, including low-key lighting, limited color palette, off-kilter cinematography, 1940s costuming, and its setting in a crowded, dirty city where it is always night. The plot is on the surface a noirish murder mystery, featuring dead prostitutes, a hard-boiled yet trustworthy cop, an innocent everyman, and a torch singer (his wife). Little of this interested me in 1998 as much as the puzzle of the city and its aliens. Today I see noir everywhere.
And the darkness at the heart of noir is as much a part of the film’s production context as its content, I’ve learned:
- Dark City co-writer David S. Goyer is known for a number of dark thrillers, including the Blade films, Batman Begins, and Batman: The Dark Knight. (I’m trying not to hold against him that he penned 2016’s Batman vs. Superman.)
- Director Alex Proyas also directed the dark action films The Crow (1994) and I, Robot (2004). (I’m trying not to hold against him that he directed 2016’s Gods of Egypt.)
- Dark City is the name of a 1950 noir starring Charleton Heston and Lizabeth Scott.
- According to Roger Ebert, police detective Bumstead (William Hurt) may be named for award-winning Hollywood art director Henry Bumstead, whose work can be seen in numerous excellent films including four by Hitchcock, including Vertigo (1958).
- Rufus Sewell (who plays protagonist/hero John Murdoch) can now be seen as Obergruppenfuhrer Smith in the noirish The Man in the High Castle (2016), based on the novel by Philip K. Dick and doing it quite better than Blade Runner did (see below). (Ok, so that’s not any kind of explanatory link, but I do love Dick and Sewell.)
From such details, big and small, we can all agree there is plenty of intentional noir in and surrounding 1998’s Dark City. But why?
I tried to answer this question for myself in studying Blade Runner back in the day, but I never came up with a satisfying answer, especially because the movie veered so sharply from Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the novel on which it supposed to be based. I’m sure I could dig up a chapter from Retrofitting Blade Runner that would make a good argument, but this post is about Dark City, and I think I can actually answer the question for this film.
Dark City meshes its SF and noir elements incredibly well, and that is because both SF and noir film owe a stylistic debt to German Expressionism. A style that emerged first in the theater, expressionism aims to portray outwardly the inner, psychological states of characters. The madness of the protagonist of Fritz Lang’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) for example, is displayed outwardly, as we see the world from his horrified point of view. The style includes set distortions, tilted camera angles, and contrasts of light and darkness:
Lang is also the director of the silent masterpiece Metropolis (1927). With its towering, futuristic city, massive clock, evil scientist, and inhuman creation, seems almost a template for the look and some of the themes of Dark City:
German Expressionism influenced not only 40s-50s noir but also 1930s horror, so it is not surprising that the disturbing Dr. Schreber should remind us of another famous doctor from Hollywood history (Frankenstein, 1931):
Lang’s M (1931) is lauded is one of the most influential films on the creation of noir. To Expressionism, M adds gritty realism and a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of one of film’s first serial murderers, and also shares focus and imagery with Dark City. Ebert notes the sea of pale faces in the gloom during the criminals’ court trial of the murderer:
Exploring not only the noir elements of Dark City but its rich homage to the sources of both the original noir and 1930s horror cycles allows me to enjoy and appreciate the film so much more today than when I saw it in the theater back in the twentieth century. So what if Kiefer Sutherland’s acting makes me cringe and his character serves as a giant spoiler that opens the film (original) or nearly closes it (director’s cut). Who cares if I can’t explain why the aliens allow swimming pools in the city when they can’t stand water? And why worry about the smallness of John Murdoch’s thinking when he finally gains control of life, the city, and everything. Dark City is a rich, engaging mix of genres with a style too easily eclipsed in our memories by The Matrix and films that followed despite (or because of) its lower budget, limited effects, and limited action sequences.
Skip Batman vs. Superman (and Gods of Egypt while you’re at it), and spend an evening with Dark City. You won’t be sorry.