Dark City is both a science fiction film and a neo-noir. The film, directed and co-written by Alex Proyas, uses its science fictive breaks from reality to create a kind of genre commentary, placing a new spin and plot importance on long standing tropes of the noir tradition. In using a science fiction setting, the film can create a reality in which the metaphorical corruptions and convolutions of the world of the noir become literal. A man waking up with no memory, trying to piece his life together itself becomes a clue in a larger mystery of how this world works. Amnesia is not at all uncommon in noir, but in Dark City, amnesia and confusion of identity become actively malicious, controlled actions of the antagonists, the “Strangers,” who possess godlike powers to stop time and alter reality. Thus, the iconic labyrinthine cities of LA or Chicago give way to a city that is a literal maze that is twisted anew each night and designed purposefully without an exit. One scene, to drive home the metaphor, even depicts such a maze, designed for rats – as the residence of this city serve as subjects of experimentation for these “Strangers.”
The question of fate, of what makes a person who they are, that lurks at the center of many films of the genre is the one that these sinister experimenters are seeking to solve. They seek to understand memory and what drives a person to be the unique agent that they become. To this end, they arrange a classic plot – a betrayed husband, mad with jealousy, turns into a killer of prostitutes. Given the memories of a killer, they wondered, would he continue to kill? But the process fails and the man is left without an identity, framed for crimes he not only did not commit, but most of which never happened in the first place. The detectives who are staged to play their part come onto the scene, walking through dimly lit corridors in an old motel, giving the movie the classic feel – but they too are pawns, and the one detective who has seen the truth is driven mad. By assigning everyone's identities, these puppet masters create a truly noir world of corruption, where there is no secrecy, no innocence, and no place left untouched by a nefarious system. It becomes a world where nothing is as it seems, where no social bond is genuine, and where everything is as tenuous as the will of these unseen powers.
Our protagonist, assuming the assigned name of John Murdoch, is pursued by the Strangers, beings that, they reveal, literally assume the identities of the dead by wearing their skins. John is special – he possesses the same reality warping abilities as the Strangers, and begins to understand the truth – that there is no world beyond the city, that all of their lives are manufactured falsehoods. Much of what he notices fall into the tropes of noir. To convince the detective that the world, rather than he, is insane he says, “Daylight. When was the last time you remember seeing it? I'm not talking about a distant, half-forgotten childhood memory. I mean, like, yesterday. Last week? When? Do you have a single memory? You don't, do you? I don't think the sun even exists in this place.” The Strangers, though they have implanted everyone with the memory of the sun, are hurt by the strong light, and have created a world of perpetual darkness.
The plot is a bit convoluted and at points the artist choices come off as unintentionally comic, but the movie succeeds spectacularly in creating a world and feel with powerful aesthetics and strong philosophical themes.