Dark City, Matrix
"It is—absurd—I know—but what other—explanation—is there?"
—Dr. Daniel Schreber, Dark City
A man wakes up in a bathtub. Gingerly, he touches his face; there is blood on it. His? Or someone else's? The phone rings, and a stranger's voice crackles through the line: "You are confused. You have lost your memory." The line is suddenly disconnected…and there is a body of a dead woman in the living room. A body whose death appears to be of his causing, and whose murder he has no remembrance of.
Thus begins the story of Dark City, a movie which is quickly becoming emblematic of why I have become so passionate about movies. Dark City was released in 1998, a year before The Matrix electrified moviegoing audiences with its compelling story of a world controlled by the whims of others. When simplified to that same level, Dark City would also be described with those exact words, but in reality, the films are very much different.
Both films centered heavily around the question "What is reality?"—but approach the question using tools from vastly different genres. In The Matrix, the Wachowski brothers applied the same laser-guided tactics that made Bound so compelling, and used them to create a movie that used the standard conventions of the martial-arts/action genres to ask questions of much greater import.
On the other hand, Dark City is quieter, more focused on sleight of hand than on acrobatic theatrics. Alex Proyas created a film with the same type of dark, vaguely menacing undertones that worked so well in Blade Runner (and in Proyas' earlier film, The Crow), and approaches the questioning of reality from the highly atmospheric, stylistic genre of film noir.
Don't misunderstand me: I loved The Matrix, and I think it will prove to be one of the seminal films of the '90s; even now, it's obvious to see that the look of The Matrix is already beginning to permeate many of the films that came after it.
I've read criticism of both movies, stating that both The Matrix and Dark City chose to put style before substance, and in both cases I have to disagree. I think these two movies stand as some of the best recent examples of using style to enhance and amplify their plots' substance. I just find it a little disheartening—but not terribly surprising—that while The Matrix brought in literally hundreds of millions of dollars, Dark City didn't even manage to make back its production costs.
Realistically, though, it's difficult to ask moviegoers to buy not one but two movie tickets—the first to watch the movie (and get lost in it), and the second to go back, watch it, and truly understand it. (About the only recent movie I know of that managed to convince moviegoers of this was Memento.) In comparison to Dark City, The Matrix was was just as good, but easier to grasp.
Anyone who went back to see Dark City more than once would've found that, unlike most movies, it improves significantly on second viewing. Once you understand who the Strangers are, and what they are doing, suddenly the madman detective appears to be the sanest and most rational man of them all…
It's rare to find movies that are so intelligently constructed and well presented that they make you question the reality of the world you live in.
Rarer still to be able to get anyone else to watch them.
Gratuitous note to self: just buy the silly DVD for Dark City already! It isn't as if you haven't been wanting it for months, anyhow…