Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998) “What Makes Us Human?”

For this essay, I chose the title “What makes us human?”, stereotypical for writing about science-fiction films for instance Blade Runner, although I believe that Ridley Scott’s film does not deal with that particular question, but this is a topic for another essay. Be it as it may, Dark City does deal with this question, it is its primal self-proclaimed concern. The film is set in a city where there is no sun, it is shrouded in eternal darkness. John Murdoch awakes in a bathtub, disoriented, not knowing his own name, or anything about himself. In other words, he is in the same position as the viewer, darkness (lack of cognition) pervades not only the external, but also the internal, the soul.

Next to him, a prostitute is lying on the floor, covered in blood, circles are painted with blood all across her body, and a knife is standing next to her. In a retrospective reading of the film, the fact that it is a knife is important, since beings who are after Murdoch use stilletos as a weapon. Murdoch has no memories, and in this respect, the film is similar to Blade Runner regarding the implied question whether our memories or heritage, speaking in a Heideggerian language, define our being. Murdoch receives a phone call from an unknown (obviously) person, who tells him that there are people coming for him and that he must leave the motel.

In a parallel editing sequence we see white-skinned man in dark robes who are relentlessly looking for him. One critic noted that F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu is an important influence in this respect, and beings who are after Murdoch seem to be inspired by the creature from the film; they cannot stand water (moisture) while Murnau’s Nosferatu cannot stand the sunlight. In the next scene we see a beautiful bar singer singing the song Sway, and soon we find out that it is Murdoch’s wife. She meets a psychiatrist, the same person who called Murdoch to warn him about his pursuers.

An inspector is searching for the killer and since Murdoch is a prime suspect, he visits his wife for interrogation. These neo-noir elements are important for the narration, but only as a sort of a prelude to the much larger issues which are in question. Inspector Bumstead ironically speaks of “healthy paranoia” when he explores the crime scene, and there truly is something paranoid about the circles, immensely important for the reading of the film, the whole predicament the characters are in and the search for solutions, the truth. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan believed that all knowledge is imbued with paranoia and he wanted to induce “controlled paranoia” in his patients to discover the truth. This type of “healthy paranoia” seems to be the main drive behind Murdoch’s persistent attemtps to discover the truth about the city with no natural light.

Murdoch says: I feel like I’m living someone else’s nightmare. These words, spoken shortly after the beginning of the film, reveal the truth about the city without Murdoch knowing it. All the inhabitants live in a city where extraterrestrial beings remove their memories at night and replace them with other memories, thus changing their identity and forming new roles, new lives for them. They call it an experiment, and it is a recreation, on a much larger scale, of a Stanford prison experiment, conducted by the social psychologist Philip Zimbardo. It is well-known that Zimbardo arranged an experiment in which he gave the students the roles of prison guards or inmates and observed their behaviour. His goal was, in the end, to explore the nature of evil and the effect of a particular environment on the individuals.

The beings in the film give the inhabitants the usual everyday roles, exchanging them night by night only to observe them. They are searching for the essence of human nature, they want to know what it means to be human. They imprint some inhabitants with muderous urges only to observe whether next one who receives them, will act in the same way; several prostitutes were already killed. At the beginning, Dr. Schreber, the psychiatrist who works for them, conducts an experiment with a rat in a maze, implying that such experiment is a part of the daily routine in the city where sun never rises.

Jean Paul Sartre, in a sentence probably quoted more than the King James Bible, that existence precedes essence, in other words, “self” is nothing it is “a set of perpetually open posibillites” (MacIntyre), while for the sociologist Goffman, society is everything and self is nothing. Sartre starts with a radical individualist stance and Goffman with the opposite proposition, but both of them end up in the same place. There is no “self” and it seems that the experiment in Dark City points in that direction.

When Bumstead drinks coffee, we can see the surface rotating around the circles, and the fingerprint is also of circular nature. The symbolism is obvious, the inhabitants are going around in circles without end, and so is Murdoch for the greater part of the film while he is searching for truth. This points to the circulary nature of existence, and as in a rat’s maze, at the center of the maze is Shell Beach, a place in Murdoch’s memories, where he grew up, although we are aware that this place is an implant, therefore not real. The characters who realized the nature of the city, Murdoch, Bumstead and his partner, who ends the circle with suicide, all try to end the circular motion and find truth.

The beings’ goal is to find human soul, and as we find out later, they are inhabiting the corpses of dead humans. From a theological standpoint, it is ironic that the (living) corpses are searching for soul. They meet in a place similar to a gothic cathedral, with vast space and a giant yellowish clock. Murdoch has the same ability as the beings have, to tune, in other words to use psychic power for telekinesis and, creating the world around them. It is a metaphor for the human power to create completely new worlds out of thoughts, by sheer imagination.

Dr. Schreber, at the beginning the only man who is not implanted with memories each night, is a man whose memories were removed, except for the ones which concern his knowledge of behavioral psychology and psychiatric expertise. It is rather odd that a man with only technical knowledge about humans posseses such insight into human condition. In the end, he helps Murdoch to defeat the beings and establish a new order.

The film is, in sum, a Platonic journey of the soul, from the beginning where there is only dark (the famous cave metaphor) and the gradual ascent of the soul toward truth. Nevertheless, bearing in mind the metaphor of a circle, the greater part of the journey is circular. It is a search for truth as a location of a place imagined in memories, and only gradually it becomes the path of enlightenment, which takes place in the dark. Murdoch’s wife Emma and John himself, share an intimate moment when he is in prison and she tells him that although everything they are is implanted, their feelings are real.

With Schreber’s help, (the thing which I find ludicrous since a person with only technical psychological knowledge would be more akin to Josefe Mengele than anyone’s saviour), Murdoch defeats the extraterrestrial beings, rotates the city which is, as we find out, in space, so the sun can shine on it. He tells the beings that they looked for the essence of being human in a wrong place. According to him, it is not in the mind, but in the soul. I agree with Murdoch, but while he emphasizes romantic love, I would say that the essence of human beings (if there is such a thing) is their relentless search for truth, which can be both destructive and fruitful.

The whole film revolves around this fact. Murdoch and the company defy living in a place they know to be constructed on lies, but this happens only when they get some “hints” that they are living a lie. In the end, Murdoch meets Emma on Shell Beach which he constructed by tuning, and since her memories have been changed, she does not recognize him but tells him to take a walk. The main question, in the end, is – did the circle of darkness finally end? I believe that it did not.

The very fact that he built Shell Beach – a constructed memory –  and not something else is a proof that his journey did not really end, his soul did not emancipate from the beings’ influence and he still lives in the same world as he did before. It is the only world he ever knew. The end may seem rosy, but it is tragic. In the end, he is still in the cave, although the sun does shine, but he still sees shadows, and he constructed the shadow – Shell Beach, and his wife is not his wife, but only someone who looks like her. Dark City may be illuminated, but his life is still fabricated although there is a possibility for happiness.

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