Chapter 21: I Don't Think The Sun Even Exists...

Despite the fact that he's really only written and directed a handful of films, Alex Proyas is arguably one of the most important people working in the realm of Cyberpunk film. His 1994 masterpiece The Crow stands out as one of the most darkly moving films of the '90s, and has already been discussed in this series. Less successful with the public, but perhaps more brilliant in its own way, was 1998's Dark City. Critically acclaimed and packed from end to end with a noir feel, a great script and amazing costumes and cinematography, it definitely captures the feel of Cyberpunk films as they neared the end of the 20th Century.

One of the loudest criticisms of the film is that it "borrows" from earlier material, but that's like arguing that bread borrows from wheat, or wine borrows from grapes. Certainly, Dark City's traces of Dark City's imagery can be found everywhere from Metropolis and City of Lost Children, to Proyas' own Crow film and Gilliam's Brazil. Not to mention the Strangers, who are certainly close cousins of the cenobites from Clive BarkerŐs Hellraiser films. But all of these things are somehow appropriate here, combining to form a dark stew that's really rather good. If you ever wondered what dark tasted like, this is it.

Darkness is where we start, just like all films (which all fade in from black) and, more importantly, the Universe in most mythologies. Before God/the gods create the Earth and those who reside upon it, they start with darkness. And in this case, the "gods" who create from that darkness are called Strangers, an alien race with the ability to "tune" physical reality like a radio dial, easily switching from the Top 40 channel to the Classic Rock station whenever Britney Spears comes on. In short, they use psychic powers to manipulate the world, true mind over matter, and their only flaw seems to be that they're dying.

We learn all this from Dr. Daniel P. Schreber, played with an annoying Peter Lorre-esque voice by Kiefer Sutherland, a veteran of films that deal with dark and deadly things (such as Lost Boys and Flatliners). Dr. Schreber, useful because he was a psychologist, happily betrayed his fellow men in order to stay alive, and now every night at the stroke of midnight, he and the Strangers stop time and reality to do whatever it is they're doing.

If it sounds confusing, imagine waking up naked in a hotel bathtub full of cold, dirty water, with no memory, blood on your forehead and a dead prostitute in the bedroom. The scene is described as beautifully as it's filmed (note that in this early version of the script, our protagonist's name is Jonathan Walker, which is not true for the final film):


     SHADOWS DANCE  -  in and out of darkness.  A hooded light-bulb
     swings IN SLOW MOTION from the ceiling, its dim light REVEALS:

     A GLASS SYRINGE  -  broken on the floor.

     Clothes on a chair...

     Puddles of water on the floor...

     ANGLE ON SLEEPING EYES  -  Between waves of light they snap open and
     dart about in confusion.

     ON JONATHAN WALKER as he sits up.  Water splashes.  He's in a tub
     of long-cold water.  His neck aches like he's been sleeping forever.

     TIGHT ON WALKER  -  he's in his early thirties, dark featured.

     HIS P.O.V.  -  looking around the room.  Everything's strange,

     He stands, steps from the tub.

     stops the bulb mid swing.

     ON HIS REFLECTION in a cracked wall mirror.  He moves to the mirror
     and looks at himself.  A line of blood runs across his face, from a
     point between his eyes.  he wipes it away, and notices a tiny pin-
     prick wound on his forehead.

     WALKER'S P.O.V. PUSHES TOWARDS a circular window.  The glass is
     cracked, covered in grime.  His hand wipes it, this only smears the
     dirt, but the window is unlatched and swings open with a creak.

     It's dark out there.

Dark, indeed. Nightmare dark, which is why you'd probably react in much the same way as our protagonist does, stumbling around and knocking the goldfish bowl over (there's no real explanation for why there's a goldfish in the room, although it's clear that the flopping fish is an indication of how our hero (played by Rufus Sewell of Hamlet and Dangerous Beauty fame) of is feeling at this point. All he has to his name is a suitcase (which he promptly throws in the river), a postcard for a place called Shell Beach, and a wallet that he's apparently left at a nearby Automat. He doesn't even know his name until he wanders downstairs and is told by the innkeeper while fleeing his room at the urging of a mysterious phone call, and even then he's not sure what the "J" in J. Murdoch stands for.

What we do know is that Murdoch's wife (Jennifer Connelly, the teenage scourge of the goblin king in Labyrinth) is named Emma, and she's a lounge singer at a local nightclub. She's contacted by Dr. Schreber, who's eager to get Murdoch into his office for one reason or another. Here, a few more pieces of the story begin to unfold: Murdoch apparently left Emma several weeks ago, packing a suitcase and storming out, and the doctor believes that he could be not just an amnesiac, but psychotic and delusional, even violent. They have no idea.

Case in point: Murdoch has wandered down to the automat to recover his wallet, and gets a little flustered when he can't immediately retrieve his wallet from behind the glass of one of the little windows. Tapping into some unconscious reserve of power, he pops the window open with the power of his mind, grabbing his wallet and heading for the door. On the way out, he's stopped and harassed by a pair of cops, but a hooker standing outside decides to rescue our hero, and the two of them head back to her place. Which is a huge mistake on her part, for an assortment of reasons -- as we learn by way of the police investigating the dead woman in Murdoch's hotel room, he's suspected of killing not only her, but a half dozen other prostitutes. Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt, best known for roles in The Big Chill and Children of a Lesser God) has his doubts, in part because the detective who was on this case, Eddie Walenski, has apparently left sanity behind at this point. Exactly why, we'll soon learn.

Mr. Murdoch, meanwhile, has discovered that his first name is John (duh), and that he apparently has a wife. This, combined with the sudden realization that he, himself, could be the serial killer the police are looking for (he has a pocket full of killer news clippings), drives him to leave the hooker behind and flee for home in search of answers. Before he can get there, however, the Strangers catch up with him below a Shell Beach billboard, intent on taking John back with them, alive or dead. When their hocus pocus sleep spells fail to work on him, they pull out daggers, and discover to their surprise (and the death of several) that this kitten has fangs. John "tunes" the boards out from under one, and chops another's head in half, revealing a glowing insect-like thing in place of a brain.

Needless to say, this is kinda freaky, so he runs for home, where he gets more pleasant news: his wife, Emma, has apparently been cheating on him. This, it seems, is why he left home and started chopping up hookers. Realizing he'd better have a chat with the doctor, he heads for the door, only to discover that Detective Bumstead is waiting for him. Of course, if he got caught this would be a really short movie, so it's no surprise that he escapes down the stairs, unconsciously "tuning" himself a door to escape through, leaving the detective boggled, and determined to find out from the doctor what the hell is going on. Both men make their separate ways to the doctor's office.

While all this is going on, the doctor is having a conversation of his own with the Strangers, none of them pleased that John can tune, or that the doctor is somehow involved in his awakening. But rather than just tracking him down to kill him, the aliens want the doctor to prepare another copy of the memories that were due to be implanted in John's head. They do not say why during their brief conversation. There are many brief conversations in this movie, which can be disconcerting to some. No one thread of dialogue reveals the entire truth of the movie at once, instead coming bit by bit, piece by piece in short 30- and 45-second scenes. Our poor doctor seems to spend more time explaining himself to others than actually doctoring; after the Strangers leave, he's confronted by Detective Bumstead, then followed by John until he disappears into a stone wall and heads "downstairs" to the realm of the Strangers.

Here, at last, we get a good glimpse of what's really going on behind the scenes, the strangers working on a clockwork assembly line to manufacture memorabilia while the doctor uses his chemical apparatus to piece together memories in liquid form while being bullied about by the leader of the Strangers, Mr. Book (played by the renowned Ian Richardson), who looks quite a lot like Darth Vader, sans helmet, at the end of Return of the Jedi. Murdoch's ability to "tune," the doctor surmises, is based on a simple matter of evolution. Perhaps John is exactly what the strangers have been looking for all along through their experimentation.

The experiments aren't quite over yet, however, as John personally witnesses from above as midnight strikes and the world is shut down. Amidst a massive subterranean tangle of clockwork resembling something out of Metropolis, the strangers tap into their collective consciousness and begin to "tune" the city. Buildings rise and fall, walls vanish and doors appear from nowhere as the living city changes itself before John's startled eyes. And this "tuning" affects the people within the city as well; as John watches, a man is carried into a barber shop for a shave and a haircut (two bits), and a poor, white trash couple is transformed overnight into a wealthy family, complete with a brand new mansion.

It's after this last transformation that John finally confronts Dr. Schreber in the street, ranting and raving and demanding an explanation. When none is immediately forthcoming, he unconsciously "tunes" once again and hurls the doctor down the street, much to the doctor's surprise. He tells Murdoch that he has their power, and that he can teach John to use it properly so that the two of them can take the city back. But for now, there's no time: the clock strikes midnight, the city comes to life, and John can do nothing but flee as the Strangers appear and take the doctor belowgrounds with them.

The Strangers, it seems, are having a hard time tracking John down, and so they've decided to inject one of their own kind with John's memories, thus giving them an edge. They will know exactly where he is going and what he is thinking. Or rather, one of them will, the chosen one being the delightfully evil Mr. Hand, played by Richard O'Brien of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame. Painfully, torturously, Hand is injected with human memories, and to the surprise of the other Strangers he survives the procedure, grinning as he declares, "I have John Murdoch in mind."

At this point, the Strangers still know John better than he knows himself, because he's still bumbling about trying to find Shell Beach, the image on his postcard. He surmises that Karl Harris, a name on the postcard, might be a good place to look for answers, so he clambers into the subway to visit him. While there, he discovers that despite the detailed Subway map on the wall, the green line subway car does not, in fact, enable one to travel to Shell Beach; it's an express line to nothingness that no one can ever board. In a minor case of deus ex machina, Detective Bumstead's buddy Walenski happens to be there at the last stop to reveal his own opinions about the city: the only escape is death, which he chooses for himself as he dives in front of a subway car. Probably a good thing for Walenski; earlier, in a conversation with Bumstead, he pretty much revealed that he was certifiably insane, driven mad after realizing that the world he lived in was just a huge spiral with no escape and no true reality.

What Walenski didn't know about was the Strangers, who are busy tracing the footsteps of the killer that should have resided inside John Murdoch's mind. They first pay a visit to the hooker John was with, killing her just as the others were killed before her. Then they pay a visit to John's house, where we know he isn't, followed by a trip to a nearby pier, where John met his wife, and Mr. Hand meets Emma. But still, no John.

John is, of course, busy visiting what turns out to be Uncle Karl, who owns a fish store called Neptune's Kingdom. Here, the few memories that John has of his childhood begin to unravel, slides of Shell Beach revealing scars that he doesn't have, and drawings he never made. Unsure whether it's day or night, John heads for his old room, but is forced to flee when he catches Karl on the phone giving his location away to Emma and Bumstead.

At this point, midnight strikes, which means there'll be no quick rescue for John, who now finds himself once again pursued by the Strangers. He runs to the rooftop of a nearby building, where he's confronted by Mr. Hand and the others, who reveal at last the fact that the bodies they wear are just dead human bodies (hence their pasty complexion and bald heads). John barely manages to escape as the city is tuned beneath him, leaping to safety as two buildings crash into one another and become one, stumbling down to the street below as midnight strikes again and Emma and Bumstead finally arrive in time to rescue him.

At this point, John knows most of the truth about what's going on, even if he doesn't completely understand it, so despite the fact that he's jailed on suspicion of being a murderer, he manages to convince the Detective that there's something more insidious happening to both of them. Can the Detective remember how to get to Shell Beach? No. Can he explain why the sun never seems to rise? "I don't think the sun even exists in this place," says John. The Detective has no answers. And John starts to realize the horrible truth about what it all means: everything he knows to be true could just be an implanted memory that's only a few days old. Emma is as much a stranger as anyone else, and he's only a killer because the evidence points towards a man he never became.

It's little surprise when the Strangers show up at the police station to get John, but Bumstead has been convinced and has let John go so the two of them can track down the Doctor for some final answers. We've heard most of it already, but for John and the Detective, it's a real epiphany when Schreber explains that everyone living in the city was abducted by the Strangers long ago. They're trying to understand humanity, to understand the human mind and soul, in the hopes that they can become more human and thus save their species. They have no individuality or souls of their own, being a mere collective hivemind of sorts that's on the brink of extinction precisely because they cannot evolve, cannot adapt. Vampire-like, they can stand neither light nor water, keeping the world in the dark and avoiding large bodies of water like the plague.

As for the doctor, he was forced long ago to inject himself, erasing all memory of his former life while retaining only his scientific knowledge, effectively making himself a slave to the Strangers. But his erased memories are nothing compared to the state everyone else is in: none of them were ever young, and everything they remember is all an illusion created by the machine below. Fortunately, the doctor has a magic bullet in his little syringe, and if John will only inject himself...

John's a little reluctant to stab himself in the head with a needle (who wouldn't be?) so he instead drags his two companions off in search of Shell Beach. The doctor's warnings prove true, for when they finally locate the place, it's little more than a poster on a brick wall. There is no beach. There is no ocean. There's just a blank wall, which John smashes with his "tuning" to reveal empty space beyond. Just then, the Strangers show up, and after a brief scuffle Detective Bumstead is shoved out of the city and into space. As he floats around in vacuum and freeze-dries, we finally, finally glimpse the horrifying truth: this Dark City is merely a disk adrift in space. Not only is there no ocean, but there is no sun, no earth, no nothing. Just the city, and those who live within it.

Bumstead dies in the original script too, but his death is at once more meaningful and less satisfying. In the film, he's more of a martyr, but in the script his last act is that of an angel of death, killing his mother (who's alive and on life support) before settling in to die himself.


     Bumstead enters, holding his piano accordion.  He's clutching a
     bleeding gash in his side...  He stumbles over to his mother, in her
     life support machine.

     ANGLE ON HIS HAND  -  it reaches out and gently caresses the glass
     over his mother's staring face.

                  I'm so sorry.

     He reaches down and grabs wires leading to the machine.  He pulls at
     them until they SNAP LOOSE from their connections.

     SEVERAL ANGLES of machines dying, lights going out, breathing
     apparatus ceasing to pump.

     HIS MOTHER  -  she struggles momentarily, her eyes widen and she
     reaches out to him through the glass, then she is finally still.

     Bumstead turns away from the woman.  His face is shadowed but he is
     clearly crying.

     ANOTHER ANGLE  -  Bumstead pulls up the metal chair and sits,
     grimacing with pain.  He lifts the accordion with some difficulty
     and balances it on his knee.

     WIDER  -  Bumstead is sitting beside his dead mother in her now
     silent life support machine.

     He starts to PLAY  -  the music still pretty.  But he's breathing
     heavily  -  and his blood is DRIP, DRIP, DRIPPING onto the floor...

But the film is about John, and thus it's relevant that Bumstead flies out into space and is gone, leaving John alone and with a difficult decision. Partly because he's now faced with a seemingly impossible situation, partly because he just watched a newly found friend die, and partly because Mr. Hand has Emma at knifepoint, John surrenders and allows himself to be taken underground, where Mr. Book straps him, Christlike, to a table and orders the Doctor to inject him with the memories of the Strangers' collective unconscious. Their hope is that John's unique soul will bond with their mind and enable them to survive. Thus, no longer are the countless humans above needed; "Shut it down. Shut it down forever," declares Mr. Book as the clockwork grinds to a halt and the city falls into a final sleep.

But our Doctor, caged though he is, has one final ace up his sleeve; the syringe that John refused to inject himself with is swapped for the real one, and John is given the "red pill" instead of the "blue pill" (to use a Matrix analogy). Instantly, he is blessed with years and years of implanted experience, each memory featuring the doctor instructing him in the ways of the Strangers, teaching him how to use their machine, and how to tune. A lifetime of knowledge in a single syringe.

Newly empowered, John leaps up from his symbolic crucifixion, death and rebirth, and does battle with the Strangers. Reality is split apart and clockwork mechanisms shatter under the onslaught of the "tuning" battle which ensues, culminating in a moment of apotheosis when John and Mr. Book fly up into the air, struggling for control of a dagger. Ultimately, John wins the battle, plunging the dagger into Book's stomach and sending him careening into a water tower, baptizing the alien creature in his skull with the equivalent of holy water and at last freeing the city from the grasp of the Strangers.

Of course, the Strangers fully intended to plunge their creation into darkness, ending all life on the way out, and Dark City is thus now effectively a world without a God. This atheistic attitude was made much clearer in an earlier version of the script, which included a scene wherein John wanders into a paganistic church that now apparently worships an insect god, particularly astute considering the fact that the Strangers true forms are rather insectlike in appearance:


     A PRIEST  -  is at the altar, cloaked in a blood-red robe, flanked
     by two ALTAR BOYS also in red.  Behind them is a statue of some kind
     of INSECT.

     The trio start to walk in circles as they chant softly.  Then they
     stop and stare at the CONGREGATION through eye-slits in their hoods.

     TIGHT ON THE PRIEST  -  He begins his sermon.

                  Beware!  The night is deadly.  There
                  is a criminal among us.

     Walker moves into the church, through heavy carved doors.  He sits
     on A PEW, at the back of the room, tries to blend with the SMALL
     GATHERING sitting silently around him.

     TIGHT ON  -  the priest's hand pointing, moving over the heads of
     the congregation, accusingly, suddenly jabbing towards an OLD WOMAN
     in the front row.

                  It could be the woman across the

     Everyone turns to stare at the woman.  She's nervous  The hand
     moves slowly now, across to a YOUNG WOMAN several rows back  - she's
     oriental and quite beautiful.

                  Or the girl next door!

     The priest pauses dramatically then:

                  Or the man in the back row!

     Suddenly the finger is pointing at Walker. All the faces turn,
     stare suspiciously at Walker.

     ANGLE ON WALKER  -  frozen with fright.  Then the priest lowers his
     hand, continues the sermon.  The people look away.

A bit later in this script, there's also a scene where the prostitute John visits, here named Mei, gives him a bath, perhaps a thinly veiled reference to Jesus' feet being bathed by the prostitute Mary Magdalene in the Bible:

     Walker, naked, steps gently into the warm water filling the tub.


     Mei starts putting his clothes into the sink to soak.  She slides a
     hand into Walker's coat, removes the wallet.  She takes out the
     cash, puts the wallet aside, then puts the coat into the water.  She


     Walker is sitting in the tub running his neck.

     Mei steps from the doormat holding a BAR OF SOAP in her hand.  She
     sits beside Walker and takes his hands, gently lathering soap around
     them, continuing to smile at him.

     TIGHT ON HER HANDS  -  lathering his arms and back.  She gently
     washes scratches and bruises on his back.

Overt religious symbolism or not, it wouldn't be entirely crazy to suggest that John Murdoch has now become a God, since he now controls the machine below Dark City, and has the lives and fates of everyone residing therein in the palm of his hands. His first act is Biblical in nature, filling the empty space around the city with water to create an ocean and an atmosphere as well as the more mundane Shell Beach. As he heads to survey his creation, he creates a lighthouse, and then the Sun itself. "And let there be light." And of course, if we're talking Biblical then we have to acknowledge that Mr. Hand, who's still very much alive, is obviously a snake in this Garden of Eden, taunting John as he heads out the door, but not understanding that human nature isn't found in the head, but in the heart.


Ok, the end of the movie is a little sappy, but it's slightly melancholy as we realize that Emma has been implanted with new memories, making her Anna. If John is going to have a relationship with this Eve, he'll have to start from scratch, which is what he does as the new couple wander off towards Shell Beach, arm in arm. His last act as a God is to give himself a touch of humanity, naming himself as Adam named the animals as he introduces himself to Anna -- "John. John Murdoch." He began life not knowing his name and now he reaffirms his identity by speaking it aloud, and the cycle is complete.

I've spoken of this cycle in recent articles, but I don't think any film discussed thus far demonstrates it more clearly than Dark City. Like many Cyberpunk films, our hero starts off in the gutter, in a pretty bad state, although he's blessed with superhuman abilities in some regard. Elsewhere, it's more obvious and comes in the guise of assault shotguns or cybernetics, but here it's the ability to "tune" reality which gives him a leg up on those around him. Also like most Cyberpunk protagonists, our "hero" is not heroic, being more of an anti-hero at best; here, John is a serial killer (admittedly, not because of his own actions). Dark City itself is a Gibsonian Sprawl of buildings, alleyways and tunnels, and the fact that it's more influenced by 1940s New York City than 1990s Tokyo does not diminish the fact that there's a distinctly unsettling air about the place. Even our Strangers adopt the role of the Corporation here, manipulating the lives of those under their control for their own purposes, and occasionally enlisting their help (as with the doctor).

More importantly for more recent Cyberpunk fiction, however, is an attempt by our protagonist to achieve some degree of power and godhood within his world, regardless of how the cards fall. Here, John is almost literally transformed into a God, which has been the goal of Cyberpunk characters from the very start, from the AIs in Gibson's Neuromancer to the replicants in Blade Runner. This, then, truly completes the cycle of fiction that Northrop Frye suggests, wherein we see stories about Gods becoming heroes becoming ordinary men becoming anti-heroes, and then on the other side of the circle they inevitably seek to clamber out of Hell and attempt to achieve godhood once more. It happens here, and it happens in the film that will be discussed next time, a film which in some ways breathed new life into the Cyberpunk film, and in other ways entirely destroyed the genre in one fell swoop. I'm talking about nothing other than 1999's The Matrix.