Throwback Thursday: Is Dark City a Space Opera?

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

It’s very hard to talk about this week’s film in regards to space opera without veering heavily into spoiler territory, so I would suggest that if you haven’t seen it, backing slowly out of the room with your hands raised in a state of surrender and come back after watching it. The film in question is 1998’s Dark City. Marketed as a neo-noir science-fiction film, it flew under the radar of a lot of people on its initial release due to the sheer dominance of another film released at the time, Titanic. However, solid reviews and a strong word of mouth have helped it to live a long fulfilling life on home media.

Theatrical poster for Dark City

Original theatrical poster for Dark City. Admittedly, they could have done a better job on marketing.

Dark City follows a man who wakes up in a bathtub with no memory (the man has no memory; I can’t comment on the state of the bathtub’s mental faculties), he receives a strange phone call telling him to run, and he discovers a dead body. At this point the film is off and running. The man, Murdoch, is trying to uncover what happened and stay away from the strange men who seem to be after him.

Murdoch in a dirty bathtub.

There are a lot of dark greens, browns, and blacks in this film, as seen here before Murdoch wakes up.

The film is set up visually as a neo-noir, with the settings looking like the steamy underbelly of a post-modern Gotham and the city in a constant state of night. There are a lot of spirals and clocks in the imagery, and it adds to the theme of Murdoch being a lab rat to the Strangers. The cast is ably anchored by Rufus Sewell as Murdoch, Jennifer Connelly as his possible love interest, William Hurt as a police inspector, and Kiefer Sutherland as an enigmatic doctor. These actors start off playing certain types of noir archetypes, and they credibly strain against those archetypes, allowing them to step outside those roles as the film progresses. On the Strangers’ side, the film is anchored by Richard O’Brien and Ian Richardson. O’Brien does an incredible job bringing an air of menace to the role. When we find out that the Strangers are energy beings who have reanimated human corpses, the movements and mannerisms make sense.

A shadowy figure in the city

When a Stranger calls.

At the top of this column I mentioned that I consider this film a space opera. Dark City falls under the loosest definition of space opera. While it does have noir elements, it ends up not taking place on Earth but rather a form of spaceship controlled by the powerful minds of the Strangers. A whole city controlled by aliens traveling through space and collecting humans for experimentation? It actually sounds a little bit like Flash Gordon. And while the costumes aren’t as flashy, the color palette of the film enhances those rare flashes of color, whether it’s a fish in a sink, the red lipstick on a femme fatale, or a random neon sign.

Jennifer Connelly in front of a diner.

The windows remind me of Nighthawks at the Diner for some reason.

Director and co-screenwriter Alex Proyas has an uneven track record on his films. He gave us this amazing film and the well-done first The Crow with Brandon Lee. He also saddled us with the heavy-handed I, Robot and the miscast stinker Gods of Egypt (your mileage may vary). His other screenwriting partners were David Goyer (who contributes heavily to films in the DC universe) and Lem Dobbs (who hasn’t done a lot but did give us the British gangster film The Limey). I would definitely say that this is Proyas’s strongest film, both story-wise and visually. Being shot entirely in studio, you might end up recognizing some of the sets, as some of them were used for The Matrix the following year.

Dark City is a great combination of mystery, noir, and science fiction. It makes us want to uncover what is going on while also worrying about who is playing who. At the same time, it looks inward at itself to figure things out and also looks outward to what makes us, us. Are we our memories, or are we more? The film plays it pretty evenly with that theme. While saying that Murdoch might have the memories of a murderer, he is not a murderer, yet during the finale he is imprinted with memories that teach him to use his psychic abilities to beat the aliens. I read it as having the best of both worlds: Murdoch gets to choose which memories he wants to believe and which memories to let go.

An alien city

What if there are other alien cities like this one out there?

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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