The nature of reality isn't a new concept but back in 1999 I had thought "The Matrix" delivered one of the most unique versions of the theme. But after seeing Dark City I realized that if I had seen it when it was released in 1998, "The Matrix" wouldn't have seemed so groundbreaking.
The atmospheric noir fantasy of "Dark City" centers around John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), a man who wakes up in a hotel bathtub with total amnesia. A phone call from the strange Dr. Shreber (Kiefer Sutherland) alerts him to the presence of a dead woman in his room and the fact that he is being pursued by a bizarre group of fedora-wearing men later revealed to be known as the Strangers.
When John ventures outside of his room he's confronted by a strange, dark world in which he is the only man, other than the Strangers, awake during the late night hours and the realization that he appears to be able to manipulate the world around him with his thoughts. He starts to piece together his identity and finds his estranged wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) and learns that he is a suspect in a string of prostitute murders throughout the city. As John struggles to remember who he is he meets an apparently insane detective who investigated the murders and tells him that nothing is what it seems: that the memories of everyone in the city are being manipulated by the nefarious Strangers. As John considers what he has been told he becomes obsessed with finding his childhood home of Shell Beach and discovers that there is no way out of the city, and that it exists in perpetual night-- something the other inhabitants of the city do not seem to realize unless pressed to try to remember the last time they were outside.
As the story progresses and the mystery behind the Strangers is slowly revealed "Dark City" turns into a story of many layers- much like the well-known "Matrix" that comes only a year later. Many have described both films as Kafkaesque but the similarities go well beyond the surreal maze of dueling realities. Both movies have main characters that are distinct in that they can manipulate the hidden worlds depicted in the film in a way that no other "normal" person can- basically they are able to beat the villains at their own game. The stylized atmospheres have a certain timelessness, though "The Matrix" goes for an ultra-modern sensibility while "Dark City" looks a lot like 1930's America with a few modern touches- and trench coats are popular in both. Neo and John are both introduced to the alternate realities in a cryptic fashion, though John isn't given nearly so much guidance as Neo. And while I could spend just as much time listing the differences between the two films, it is an inescapable fact that watching one will force you to reflect on the other. Both are visually stunning. "The Matrix" has a much louder, gun-shot ridden, explosion laden, kung-fu fighting vibe. "Dark City" goes for the slow reveal and requires the viewer to take a more cerebral approach to the story (at least if you watch the director's cut it does). If the two hadn't been released so close together I would definitely think "The Matrix" had borrowed from "Dark City." As it is, I'm just amazed at the synchronicity.
Once I got over comparing the two films, I had to admit to myself that I liked "Dark City" a lot. It's not as cinematically flawless as "The Matrix" and the effects can verge on hokey at times, but once you're immersed in the noir feel of the film it's easy to overlook the flaws. Rufus Sewell isn't given the opportunity to do much more than look bewildered throughout the film, but it has to be noted that he does it far less woodenly than Keanu Reeves. William Hurt, as Inspector Frank Bumstead, brings a low-key gravitas while Sutherland channels Peter Lorre as the odd and mildly sinister Dr. Shreber. John and Emma don't have the flashy love story of Trinity and Neo, but it is nice to see the human connections in a world where reality and memory are manipulated on a whim.
It's a shame that "Dark City" got lost behind it's flashier counterpart. It deserves credit and recognition for a lot of the things "The Matrix" was praised for. I'm a little sad that I didn't get to experience the mind-bending feel I would have gotten from "Dark City" if I had seen it when it was originally released- but it's a definite 'must-have' in my sci-fi collection.