They built the city to see what makes us tick. Last night one of us went off.—Alternate tagline
Dark City is a 1998 science-fiction film directed by Alex Proyas and stars Rufus Sewell, William Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly and Richard O'Brien.
A man wakes up in a bathtub with no memories--he doesn't even recall that his name is John Murdoch until he checks his wallet. He finds a dead woman in the bedroom; so when the phone rings and the voice on the other end tells him to get out before "they" come for him, John does so. In spite of the damning evidence, John is convinced that he's not a killer, and he sets out to prove this, while evading the police... and the pale men in dark coats who have taken an interest in him.
Meanwhile, Emma Murdoch is contacted by one Dr. Schreber; he claims to be her husband's doctor and says that he desperately needs to speak with John. But it becomes increasingly unclear whether or not Dr. Schreber is really on John's side.
Meanwhile, Inspector Frank Bumstead is investigating a serial killer targeting streetwalkers--the dead woman in John Murdoch's room was the latest victim. The evidence does seem to paint John as the serial killer, but there are some pieces that just don't fit. Bumstead is beginning to understand why the last detective on this case went insane.
It's going to be a very long night for everyone.
Dark City was not a success upon release, but was adored by critics, notably Roger Ebert, who cited it as the best film of 1998 (one of the few science fiction films he's ever so honored). The film has since gained a cult following.
Also worth noting: The Opening Narration from the original cut spoils the movie to hell. (It was a last-minute addition at the behest of New Line Cinema.) It's recommended that you either watch the Director's Cut (which omits the narration) or mute the opening if you're watching the theatrical version. (Unmute at the closeup of the pocketwatch.) If you want spoilers, check out our synopsis page.
- Always Night: Used as a plot point.
- Aluminum Christmas Trees: Many viewers might not realize that the automat was a real type of dining establishment popular around the middle of the 20th century. They were quite common in the Netherlands and a few are still in operation elsewhere.
- Amnesiac Lover: John to Emma in the beginning, then Anna (formerly Emma) to John at the end.
- Amplifier Artifact: The machine below the city allows tuners to create changes on a massive scale.
- Awesome McCoolname: John Murdoch. More low key but say it and try to say it doesn't sound badass.
- Badass Longcoat - John, Bimstead and the Strangers.
- Beam-O-War: Twice during John's final battle with Mr. Book, the second time involving a thrown knife as well.
- Bittersweet Ending/No Endor Holocaust: Yeah, it's fantastic the Strangers have been thwarted, but even though John is now the God of the City, what's supposed to happen next? Has an oligarchy been replaced by autocracy? How long can he maintain the illusion? It's shown John can create matter out of nothing using the City's power, which could solve any issues regarding food or drinking supplies, but with the Strangers gone, the inhabitants are effectively free of the illusion. They will no longer be subjected to the Strangers' drugs. But then that'll only mean they'll begin to notice what they haven't before... that this city is always changing. Won't there be panic? If it wasn't for the upbeat tone at the end suggesting hope, this would have come off as incredibly bitter. We can only hope John will be a benevolent deity and ensure human progression rather than stagnation.
- Blank Book: Stranger made artifacts of John's "childhood".
- The Chanteuse: Emma.
- Chekhov's Gun: Dr. Shreber's memory vial...
- The Chosen One: John is The Everyman, even compared to the other, quirkier city inhabitants. Most of what makes him important relates to his powers.
- City in a Bottle: Everybody seems to remember life outside the city, but nobody remembers how to get to any of those places.
- City Noir: Given this film is a homage to classic Film Noir and German Expressionism, it's to be expected. But there's the added twist that this city always changes. Literally. Buildings are never in the same place twice, bridges or roadways constantly shift, apartments can become hotels, housing developments can transform into five star restaurants, etc. This only heightens the uncertainty, surrealism and paranoia in the atmosphere. It's a prison with ever-changing cells. This takes the Film Noir metaphor of the city as a repressive labyrinth of the soul to the logical extreme.
- City with No Name
- Click. "Hello."
- Closed Circle
- Creepy Child: Mr. Sleep. (Who was played by a pair of very young fraternal twins.)
- The Cuckoolander Was Right: Every single word that Detective Eddie Walenski says to anyone turns out to be perfectly true, despite the fact that his partner, Inspector Bumstead, is absolutely right when he describes Walenski as being around the bend.
- Curse Cut Short: "Maybe you finally found what you're looking for, and it's going to bite you on your aahhggg!"
- Dark World
- Days of Future Past: According to the director, although his co-screenwriters have a different interpretation.
- Doppelganger Replacement Love Interest: Anna
- Driven to Suicide: Walenski finally found a way out.
- Dying Race: The Strangers.
- Eldritch Abomination: The Strangers.
- Eldritch Location
- End of the World Special
- Evil Albino: The Strangers. The truth is scarier.
- Evolutionary Levels
- Exposition Beam: The last syringe Dr. Schreber uses on John.
- Fake Memories: Regularly and on a city-wide scale.
- Femme Fatale: Subverted quickly.
- Five-Bad Band:
- Flashback Cut: John's shattered memories of Shell Beach. Also how Dr. Schreber presents himself to John to teach him to Tune in mere seconds.
- Foreshadowing: On repeated viewings, a lot of lines and shots can be seen to call forward to the plot twist.
Crime Scene Cop: Ever notice how these things always seem to happen in the middle of the night?
- Glowing Eyes of Doom: A subtle example whenever John uses his powers. Most noticeable right at the end, when his face is completely in shadow.
- A God Am I
- Go Mad from the Revelation: Inspector Walenski.
- Gone Horribly Right: John Murdoch. The Strangers wanted to test humans and see what would happen. Murdoch happened.
- Guns Are Useless: Inspector Bumstead learns this the hard and tragic way.
- Happy Place: Shell Beach, which it is implied that several characters, including John, have either lived in or visited in the past. Did it ever exist before John "created" it? Who can say?
- Heel Face Turn: Dr. Schreber, although he had long grown tired of the Strangers by the time of the events in the movie.
- Hive Mind – the Strangers
- Homage: This film is a love letter to German Expressionism and the classic Film Noir era. See Shout-Out for more details.
- Info Dump: A well-done one, when Dr. Schreber explains the nature of the City to Murdoch and Bumstead.
- Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: spoilers.
- Inspector Javert: Inspector Frank Bumstead. A rather mild example; as devoted as he is to the law and his pursuit of the protagonist, he's far more reasonable. When he's shown proof the main character is innocent, he switches sides.
- It Was a Gift: Bumstead's accordion, which he thinks he got from his late mother.
- Kryptonite-Proof Suit: The entire city courtesy of the Strangers' machine keeping it dark and dry.
- Kubrick Stare
- Lampshade Hanging: At the start of the film, a naked John Murduch picks up his clothes and dresses, and we get a full view of them. The clothes have never been worn before, free of any wrinkles or wear, and the shoes are brand new without a mark on them. A subtle hint to the audience that things were not as they appeared?
- Living Labyrinth
- A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far Far Away
- Looks Like Orlok: The Strangers (intentionally so since the movie is a visual homage to German Expressionism and Film Noir, with lots of Schizo-Tech.)
- Merged Reality
- Mind Screw: The premise is quite disturbing once you really start thinking through its implications.
- Mind Rape: The entire premise of the mysterious syringes, and brilliantly inverted when Mr. Hand makes use of John's memories to track him down.
- Mister Strangenoun: All of the Strangers.
- Naked on Arrival: John Murdoch wakes up in a bathtub.
- The Night That Never Ends: Not only is it part of the film's atmosphere, it becomes a plot point.
- Ontological Mystery
- Parental Abandonment - John is given this history in his fake memories.
- Person of Mass Destruction
- Platonic Cave: Natch.
- Pillar of Light
- Psychic Powers: "Tuning."
- Puppeteer Parasite: "You've seen what we are. We use your dead as vessels."
- The Quisling: Dr. Schreber. He's grown tired of it by the time the film comes around, however, and acts like a Reliable Traitor to the Strangers.
- Reality Warper: The Strangers and John.
- Room Full of Crazy: Detective Walenski's bedroom (and, to a lesser extent, his office at the police station).
Bumstead: <upon being shown to Walenski's office> I'm being punished for my sins, aren't I?
- Rousing Speech: Dr. Schreber instructing John on Tuning, the Strangers' Underworld machines, and how to combat them in his memories.
- Scenery Porn: Admit it, the city, the lighting, the cinematography, it's gorgeous.
- Smoking Is Cool
- The Stoic: The Strangers are a race of stoics, right off the assembly line with creepy monotones. Mr. Hand is arguably the only Stranger in the film who subverts this trope, and as a result comes off as creepier and scarier than his fellow abominations.
- Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist: Bumstead.
- Time Stands Still: Whenever the Strangers make a change to the city, the clocks stop at midnight, and everybody except for John falls asleep. It's alluded to in the movie that Walenski remained awake at least once as well, and that's what caused him to go crazy.
- To Know Him I Must Become Him: Mr. Hand's justification for being injected with John's memories.
- Took a Level in Badass: John.
- Transferable Memory: Core to the plot.
- Undead Child: Mr. Sleep, technically.
- Upgrade Artifact: The last syringe Dr. Schreber uses on John.
- Verbal Tic:
- The Strangers' odd predilection for making clicking noises and ending sentences with the word "yes".
- Dr. Schreber's! whispery voice and...penchant, for strange... pauses. He seems to be constantly short of breath.
- Window Love: John and Emma are about to do this. Then John breaks the glass instead.
- World Gone Mad
- You Have to Believe Me
- You Wake Up in a Room: John wakes up in a bathtub, unable to remember who he is.