The beginning seemed promising: Croisette de Cannes, the 51st edition. Not one thing for everyone. But then the public was not very tender with Alex Proyas and his sci-fi creation: Dark City .
It was a painful fiasco which, in addition to marking the director’s career, condemned a film of great beauty to be the unfortunate brother of that Matrix which made the history of the seventh art the following year.
However, 25 years later, Dark City deserves to be remembered as one of the most visionary and innovative films of that decade, a pearl capable of bridging the past and future of the science fiction genre.
The unchanged charm of a unique dystopian drama
A man (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a tub, devoid of any past memories. In the room is the body of a prostitute, dead, and he doesn’t know if he is the culprit. A phone call warns him to flee as soon as possible but within a very short time he is tailed within his city, a city that changes, sheds its skin, dominated by darkness. The only person he can trust is his wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly), while Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt) pursues him ruthlessly. Little by little, man begins to understand, begins to remember and realizes that he is within a reality controlled by alien and dark forces, the Foreigners, who alter the personality of the inhabitants and their memories, in what is a gigantic cage, which is continually changed and distorted by these beings.
The ultimate goal? Understanding what makes human beings what they are, something to do in cahoots with Doctor Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), but which he will find in the protagonist, John Murdoch, an insurmountable obstacle. Dark City came out exactly 25 years ago; still remains one of the most loved films by science fiction fans and at the same time one of the most forgotten by the mainstream audience, the one that the following year would crown the Wachowski sisters’ Matrix as the last great science fiction film of the modern era , the monument to the 20th century ending and the cyberpunk genre.
Retrieving this pearl signed by Proyas, the one who gave us a timeless myth like The Crowcinematographic, also means coming to terms with one of the most visionary, coherent and fascinating works of that decade. Certainly one of the most successful sci-fi worlds not only conceptually, but also as regards its meanings, its legacy. Dark City with its hybrid nature halfway between recovering the cinema of the past and vision of a terrifying future, is one of those science fiction films that remain an unrepeatable event.
A totalizing experimentation between past and future
The first thing that catches the eye about Dark City is its ability to become a transversal container for an analysis of society, in which science fiction becomes a visual-narrative tool, rather than a truly involved universe. If this may seem paradoxical to you, we must bear in mind the fact that Proyas had the intuition to create something that if from a certain point of view was certainly connected to Orwell, Pohl, Dick, on the other hand recovered much of the hard boiled cinematic genre .
Everyone caught the embrace of the great films of the 40s and 50s that had told us of the solitude of the individual in suggestive American cities. Jennifer Connellybeautiful, desperate and sensual, the hardened inspector, the protagonist on the run from society, are manifestations of the connection to that period, in an alien dystopia which however also winks very much at oriental philosophy, in search of enlightenment, of truth. Dark City offers us all this but without forgetting the science fiction of the past, of the men in black who later turn out to be very powerful aliens, who command that city where the echoes of the metropolis are heard as Tim Burton imagined it for his Batman , but even more Fritz Lang for Metropolis. It is a question of taking a leap over decades, recovering another essential pillar not only and not so much of science fiction but of cinema in general. German Expressionism, retro-futurism, man as a prisoner of a reality that wants him to be a slave, which manipulates his freedom, his personality. Dark City was therefore above all important for this, to remind us of the topicality of themes that we thought had been overcome by the end of the Cold War, taken as we were by the optimism of the 90s, without realizing the impending tragedy, and that it was just us to pack with our hands.
Dark City or Matrix, that’s the question
Even today, within the universe of science fiction fans, there is still division between those who consider the Matrix of the year after a sort of commercial plagiarism, with the recycled sets, the plot and the overall similar theme, and those who instead defend the Wachowski sisters. The reality is that the two films are the protagonists of a parallel path, but also very different. Dark City speaks to us above all of a microcosm that represents a macrocosm, it enlightens us on society in a scientific sense and beyond, it speaks to us of the individual different from the others who is persecuted, of the truth that belongs to the few. He does so by also quoting Brazil and The Army of the 12 Monkeys
in his own way, stands as a container of all a certain cinematography focused above all on individual freedom also in a philosophical sense.
The Matrix , on the other hand, net of the creators who finally wanted to redefine it as a love story, has its origins both in mythology, including the Christian one, and in the history of the society of its time and of the future. Free from being an individual narrative, it is a snapshot of the coming technocracy, of our inability to master the technology that we ourselves have created. Above all, it stood as the last act of a golden era, the 90s, before 9/11. Dark Cityhe rejected the specific moment, he set himself up as a metaphor for the search for the human heart, with both cities as an illusion and it is no coincidence that there is a chosen one, and that it is above all love that moves him. Despite the different box office results in the collective imagination, the two films are united by a common purpose in making us understand how, even at the dawn of an increasingly individualistic era, it is precisely the freedom of individuals that is lacking.
Certainly after 25 years, it must be recognized that Dark City represents one of the most unjustly forgotten visions that cinema has given us.