In a mysterious city where night never ends, John Murdock awakens naked in a hotel bathtub unaware of where he is, who he is, or how he got there. Suffering from amnesia and developing a strange ability to control matter by thought, Murdock is pursued by police who believe him to be a serial killer, by his wife who wishes his forgiveness for cheating on him, by a doctor who has his own agenda, and most terrifyingly, by a group of pale strangers who control the city and it’s people. It’s a world where night never ends, man has no past, and humanity has no future. It is Dark City, a film which uses Mise-en-Scène to keep the audience off guard and to allow them to empathize with the feelings of the characters. This is more than apparent in the opening minutes of Dark City when we are first introduced to the characters of Doctor Shrieber and John Murdock. In the first seven minutes of Dark City, we are treated to a series of scenes that are full of rich Mise-en-Scène elements that point to the character’s emotions, state of mind, past, and also, in some cases, their ultimate destiny.
In 1994, Egyptian-born director Alex Proyas directed his first feature in the United States. Called, The Crow, it received mostly favorable reviews from critics who singled out it’s production values calling it “a colorless rain-soaked wasteland” comparing it to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Tim Burton’s Batman. The film grossed $50 million and cost only $14 million to make (Baseline II).
After The Crow, Proyas and Andrew Mason, a fellow movie maker, formed “Mystery Clock Cinema” and it was this that lead to the birth of Dark City, a film that received mixed reviews and a disappointing box office, but won an influential ally in Roger Ebert who called it the best film of 1998. Dark City also won the Film Critics Circle of Australia Award for best screenplay tying with The Interview written by Craig Monahan and Gordan Davie (Baseline II).
A visually stunning gothic science fiction thiller that borrows elements from the early film noir pictures, Dark City stars Rufus Sewell, Keifer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt (Dark City (1998), np#). “Films like Dark City, Metropolis, Blade Runner, and even some of the Batman pictures are based on images and special effects that the characters have to find there way though and are almost a genre in themselves,” says film critic Roger Ebert who believes that Dark City is a “milestone” in this new genre.
Dark City begins with a black blank screen. “First, there was darkness,” a voice whispers as though it is painful for the speaker to utter a word. “Then came the strangers.” The scene changes into a vast starfield as the voice continues. “They were a race of beings as old as time itself. They had mastered the ultimate technology, the ability to alter physical reality by will alone. They called this ability “tuning”. But they were dying. They’re civilization was in decline and so, they abandoned their world seeking a cure for their own mortality. Their endless journey brought them to a small blue world in the farthest corner of the galaxy. Our world.” The camera has been panning downward during the speech as if we, the audience were falling slowly through space. Now, in the distance, we see tall, black, and cold monoliths rise into our view and realize that we have just entered a gothic city. “Here they thought they had finally found what they had been searching for.” We fall deeper into the developing urban nightmare until we reach a platform. Standing on that platform is a man in a brown overcoat with his back to us. “My name is Daniel Paul Schreiber,” the voice continues as we realize that the man we are seeing is also our narrator. He turns to us and begins to approach. “I am just a man. I help the strangers conduct their experiments.” As he looks up, the voice-over painfully adds: “I have betrayed my own kind.”
Shreiber opens a pocketwatch and we see an extreme close-up of it’s face. Then, as wild and chaotic music blares, we see the cityscape, a vast ocean of people, cars, and subways. The pocketwatch hits midnight and everything stops. Cars and subways roll to a halt and people fall asleep where they stand under a movie marquee showing a movie called, The Evil – a hint that something malevolent is at work.
Shreiber, played by Keifer Sutherland, snaps his watch shut and walks, with a noticeable limp, into the sleeping city as the main titles begin to play.
Shrieber comes off as a man in pain. He hates what he’s doing and, by no fault of his own, appears to be battered and broken but there is still a hint of loathing for the strangers. Alex Proyas admitted that the opening voice-over was unnecessary in his opinion and concedes that the narration was the only studio imposition made on the movie. A Proyas staple is to have no opening credits at all. Instead, he prefers to just open the movie at the beginning saving the movie titles until after a prologue.
Production Designer Patrick Tatopoulus said that he believes Doctor Shrieber to be “the host” of Dark City. “It’s as if he looks at the audience and says, ‘Follow me. Walk this way!'” (Proyas).
As the titles end, we see a tall hotel. The camera zooms in on one room where a light appears to be swinging back and forth. This is where we find John Murdock, played by Rufus Sewell. He awakens with a start in a full bathtub, his face is bloodied and, unseen by him, a strange device lies broken on the floor. It’s really a nice effect to have the light swinging back and forth, film critic Roger Ebert comments in his audio commentary on the Dark City DVD. Only later in the film do we learn that the light in the bathroom is swinging because it was Dr. Shrieber who bumped into it shortly before we joined the scene and it was he who dropped the strange implement in the room.
Murdock leaves the bathtub wet and naked. “He’s born at the beginning of the movie,” Proyas says. “He comes into the world as a child does” (Proyas). Roger Ebert agrees that interpretation is not hard to see and, during the first few moments we see Murdock getting out of the bathtub, getting dressed, and going out into the world, he says that there is a sense of rebirth (Ebert). As Murdock leaves the bathtub, he slips twice on the slick green tiles of the bathroom floor. He can’t get his footing all the while he is unsure of himself and what his purpose is. He looks in a mirror, wipes the blood off of his face and, seeing no visible injury on his face, he spies a suit of clothes sitting in the corner.
Murdock dresses and, at the bathroom door, he slips again causing a goldfish bowl resting on a table in the hallway to crash to the ground. He picks the fish up and places it gently into the bathtub. Another example of the rebirth theme playing out.
Murdock searches for clues to who he is and finds a suitcase with the initials “K.H.” on it. Opening the case, he discovers a postcard from a place called Shell Beach which causes him to remember disjointed and unrecognizable memories of a boy and a house on a beach where it is sunny and warm.
What Proyas does in this stretch of the film is not to do a lot of tracking or panning or zooming, but to stick to cutting from one static shot to another which is the way comic book artists organize their panels which is to cut from one almost exaggerated point of view to another so that they can punch up the drama (Ebert). The film is cut up into a jigsaw puzzle giving us a sense of Murdock’s confusion to his environment and later, to the strangers who pursue him. This style has been misunderstood by many. Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Glieberman, who panned Dark City calling it “lightless and lifeless”, said that the multiple jumps cuts represented an “attention deficit style of editing”, even though Proyas begins using conventional zooms and pans ten minutes after the movie begins.
There is a ring at the telephone and a confused Murdock answers.
“You are confused, aren’t you? Frightened. That’s all right I can help you.” It is Doctor Schreiber calling from a pay phone.
Murdock demands to know who is calling but all Shrieber can say is that there was an experiment, something went wrong, and all of Murdock’s memories have been erased. He adds that there are some men coming and Murdock must not be taken by them. Before Shrieber can explain further, Murdock drops the phone in shock. He is not alone. There is a murdered woman lying on the hotel room floor, mutilated with spirals carved into her body.
Proyas explained that the symbols are called Fibinachi Spirals. These symbols are a motif throughout the movie and are used by the mysterious strangers quite a bit from the carvings in the dead woman to the later realized design of Dark City itself. The Fibinachi Spiral is well-known to students of chaos theory. It’s found in nature all the way from the shape of the nautilus snail to the shape of spiral galaxies. It is an organizing principle (Ebert).
Murdock panics and runs out of the room past the entrance, a door marked “614”. It’s been recognized that the “614” is actually a reference to a passage in the Bible, John 6:14.
“When the people saw the sign which he had done, they said, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!”
Since Murdock’s first name is John, it is not hard to surmise that the passage in the bible, which talks of Jesus Christ, is, in this context, meant to refer to Murdock as a prophet in the world of Dark City. Murdock is, of course, destined to defeat the strangers and bring light to Dark City, so therefore, he could be compared to a Christ-like figure.
Murdock flees and finds himself outside. Dark City, which is permanently set in the nighttime, appears to be in town in the 1940’s, although many things suggest that it is actually the present, or in some cases, the future. Architecture appears to be grafted from movies like Metropolis, Se7en, Barton Fink, Blade Runner, and various film noir pictures (Romney, 42). It just another way of keeping the audience confused and off guard.
One thing that strikes the audience about the city is that, in a world of seamless computer generated images, the metropolis of Dark City looks largely fake as if it was a table-top model. “I’m a gigantic fan of Murnau,” says production designer Patrick Totopoulous whose previous credits include The Crow, Independence Day, Stargate, and Godzilla, “I like that kind of plastic look that’s not completely real. In The Crow, when you fly over the city you know it’s not a real city, but that flavor is what we [he and Alex Proyas] is looking for. It takes you into this dream world. It brings you back to your youth, to the beginning when you saw those old movies (Malcolm, 41).”
These early Mise-en-Scène elements give the audience subtle and smart hints about what is to come in the rest of the movie. Alex Proyas skillfully crafts a new world formed of our own worst nightmares and gleefully invites us along for the ride.
It’s an invitation difficult to turn down.
Dark City. Director: Alex Proyas. New Line Cinema, a Mystery Clock Production, 1998.
Ebert, Roger. Dark City DVD Commentary One. New Line Home Video, 1998
“Dark City (1998).” The Internet Movie Database. Internet. 18 Apr. 1999. Available: http://us.imdb.com/Title?0118929
Glieberman, Owen. “The Gloom Patrol.” Entertainment Weekly. 6 March, 1998: 54.
Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version. Iowa Falls: World Wide Publishers, Translated from original texts in 1611.
Malcolm, Paul. “Design for Living.” LA Weekly. 13 March, 1998: 41.
“Proyas, Alex.” Celebrity Biographies. Baseline II Inc., 1999.
Proyas, Dobbs, Tatopoulus, and Darius Wolshi, A.S.C. Dark City DVD Commentary Two. New Line Home Video, 1998.
Romney, Johnathan. “The New Paranoia: Games Pixels Play” Film Comment. November, 1998: 34, 39-43.