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Machine in the Shell: “Dark City” Revisited

30 October 2008 5,656 Views 4 Comments author: Matt Schneider
Residents of Dark City enjoy vacationing at the local Superfund site.

Residents of Dark City enjoy vacationing at the local Superfund site.

Time was, Alex Proyas may have been one of my favorite directors, mostly on the strength of Dark City alone.  At the time I first saw it, I was a junior in high school.  The trailer was a stunning, angular pastiche that revealed neither the film’s plot, nor the majority of its most striking money shots — though every frame is certainly gorgeous.

During the first part of his feature filmmaking career, Proyas emerged as a consummate aesthete.  Not one shot was unadorned with expressionist shadows, moody set design, and particular blocking.  Woven together with a sometimes graceless “MTV-style” of editing, the strands of a Proyas narrative existed in momentous, tiny universes, constructed with painstaking composition designed to be all-caps EVOCATIVE.  What The Crowlacked in subtlety it compensated for in the sheer, drowning force of Proyas’s ambitious grandeur.  He peddled emo before emo had a proper name: back then it was “goth.” [1]

Unlike The CrowDark City harnesses Proyas’s opulent visual instincts to a grander theme than doomed love.  Apparently thirsty to engage in some hardcore genrebusting, Proyas sandwiched film noir, horror, sci-fi, and a classic whodunit into a frame that ostensibly grapples with no less than that which those possessing more self-aware gravitas than myself refer to as the “human condition.”  Within that scope, Proyas’s conception of the human will’s relationship to human nature is dangerously reductive, yet ironically appropriate in his jumbled, intoxicating milieu of physical and psychological shadows.

On the surface, the narrative reads like a Joseph Campbell-meets-Carl Rogers arc of mythopoeic self-actualization.  John Murdoch knows what hurts: being framed for a series of murders he doesn’t remember committing.  It would be too simple for him to be simply insane.  Even though it’s always night and the buildings metamorphose like girder-lined taffy every twelve hours, he isn’t distracted from the conviction that he’s stumbled upon some grand conspiracy of which only he (and one other crazy dude who jumps in front of a subway train) are aware. [2] This bleak scenario is laden with dank, oppressive production design, cobbling together architecture, costumes, and even music from various periods of the American 20th century.  Such fanciful grotesquerie is absolutely delightful.  As bleak as it is, the verve with which Proyas and his crew serve up this melange is awe-inspiring, even joyous.  As Roger Ebert says in the DVD featurette, sometimes a filmmaker comes along who “gives you more” than you need, just because it makes each celluloid moment that much more special, more transcendent.

The perspective of the film is distinctly existential: a dying alien race nicknamed “The Strangers” has abducted a large number of humans, erased their memories, and set them loose with new lives in a giant city floating through space, pieced together by memory fragments and powered by the aliens’ nigh-indomitable will (and reality-bending powers called “tuning”).  Great emphasis is placed upon the malleability of the organism in Dark City.  Human memories are extracted from the brain, mixed n’ matched in test tubes, and re-injected with a nasty-looking whizzwhazz directly between the eyes by the unwillingly complicit human captive of the Strangers, Dr. Daniel Schreber.  Alone and isolated from the rest of humanity, these survivors/lab rats have been cut off from their own heritage, their history, and, perhaps, their consciences.

Then there’s John Murdoch, the prototypical blank slate, who turns out to be not-so-blank after all.  His first act in the film is to save a goldfish from suffocating on the floor, an act of compassion.  Here a tension begins to develop between the film’s obsession with detail and its insistence on the intangible, for Proyas consistently suggests that Murdoch’s nature is beyond the reach of Schreber’s science or the Strangers’ psychic power.  Much as it engages with the questions created by a shifting and unreliable reality, at the heart of the film is another set of questions about the nature of man.  What gives humans their humanity: something innate, or something in their environment?   Murdoch tells his nemesis, Mr. Hand, [3] that the aliens were searching for what made humans unique in the wrong place.  Humanity is not in the head, but the heart.  Aww.  Proyas invokes the ancient philosophical construct of the ghost in the machine [4] as a way to characterize Murdoch’s physiological rejection of the memory serum (which was to make him a serial killer, a brand of human the aliens had yet to study).  John, it seems, got soul.

When Murdoch spontaneously evolves the Strangers’ tuning power, it can be read as an adaptation for basic, physical survival, or it can be seen as a more innate survival mechanism, welling up from whatever alchemical biological processes make humans “human.”  In either case, Murdoch represents the next step in human consciousness, at least in this city (which is all the world to its inhabitants, and our own world on the allegorical level). [5] Yet he didn’t choose to develop this gift, any more than some other humans choose to wake up during the tuning process.  Figuratively, he’s engaged in a rebellion against the soulless minions of orthodoxy, [6] but Proyas frames his story in terms of attributes that are congenital in the human character.  Insofar as it’s a human instinct to preserve free will and the power of creation, Murdoch’s subversiveness is something humans share.

A far more telling moment occurs after Murdoch has destroyed the Strangers, and Dr. Schreber asks him what he’s going to do.  For an intense moment, bathed in the afterglow of his apocalyptic display of power, Murdoch smiles, and Schreber recoils in abject fear.  Once he had recognized Murdoch’s potential, the doctor designed a memory concoction that tutored Murdoch in the use of his power.  Too late, Schreber realizes that in injecting Murdoch with the tutorial serum, he has created a Frankensteinian god, and that this god might turn out to be a monster, far worse than the Strangers, if he begins to enjoy wielding his ultimate power.  Of course, Murdoch doesn’t go mad with power, but the fact that Schreber recognizes that potential in him, and regards it as a probability more than a possibility, illuminates Schreber’s character, but also the film’s perspective of that innate human nature of which so many humanists seem afraid.

Murdoch’s godlike triumph notwithstanding, his ascendency is made possible by the process of evolution (not necessarily natural selection) and the gooey, manufactured soup of human memory, as distilled by Dr. Schreber.  The way that the narrative is constructed, Proyas must either discount the role of experience in the formation of human character or embrace it wholesale.  Throughout the film, we witness a number of people who are literally transformed overnight (or over-overnight?) by the transplanting of memories.  Their entire lives and personalities are entirely subject to the whims of a childlike doctor with a needle.  Even Emma, Murdoch’s wife, who loves him dearly, is transformed into Anna.  And if the basic, animal attraction between the two remains, that can only be the result of biology, unless Proyas is making the case for kismet as well as the soul.

Try as he might, Mr. Hand could never master basic Vulcan sign language.

Try as he might, Mr. Hand could never master basic Vulcan sign language.

This becomes chilling when we consider that the freedom heralded by the sunny finale is procured by Murdoch’s genetic predisposition and Schreber’s genetic meddling.  The humanist utopia is a product of social engineering, facilitated by scientific progress and the human intellect.  Dark City upholds this in the most powerful way, with Murdoch finally evolving to the point where he is in complete control over his environment, thanks to Schreber’s grasp of human biology and his own adaptation to the Strangers’ influence.  On the other hand, Murdoch is a benevolent god-man only because he is what he is, and over that he has absolutely no control.

Proyas suggests that Murdoch’s choices are determined by his nature to the extent that even if there is a ghost in the machine, the actions of the ghost function according to inviolable, a priori principles.  Much more consistent with Proyas’s vision would be a machine that is simply the machine, running a program of genetically pre-determined action.  Even gods cannot betray their own nature, which essentially removes free will from the equation.

As a result, the only value-system upheld by the film is the axiom, “To thine own self be true.”  Proyas’s paeans to love are touching, but without reference to an external principle (even those outside the John/Emma dynamic), Dark City’s humanism is so dedicated to thrashing out the question of free will’s relation to human nature that it unintentionally embraces the logical conclusion of biological determinism: do what thou wilt, because it is all thou canst do.  There’s no ghost in the shell, just another mechanism: a motley assembly of self-interested or eugenically modified genes at the mercy of their own codes.

Ironically, the best expression of Cartesian dualism can be found in the Strangers’ true form: protoplasmic entities that live in the skulls of human corpses and “drive” them around like Volkswagen economy cars. Since Proyas casts the doomed Strangers as the villains of the piece (albeit vaguely sympathetic ones, as villains are wont to be in genre stories), his rejection of the soul/body dichotomy only cements the film’s inadvertent alignment with biological determinism. John leaving Mr. Hand to perish in the dark near the film’s end isn’t a triumph of human independence, but an affirmation of man’s true inability to choose his own destiny.

However contrary to the filmmakers’ intentions this conclusion may be, it is somehow more fitting than the faux-humanist message tacked onto the end of the tale.  The brilliance of the film’s production values, the expert timing, the lost, haunted gazes of its cast, all feel more at home in a picture where the light at the end of the tunnel is a freight train barreling your way. [7] A film titled Dark City deserves to leave you unsettled, and almost in spite of itself, it succeeds.

Just as the classic films noir frequently closed on the protagonist dying as a result of his own web of misdeeds and bad decisions, Dark City memorably seals its own fate by concluding on a sun-soaked pier.  The uplifting image is subverted by the realization of what a pier is: a tether.  You walk to its end to enjoy the vista of a sea of limitless possibility, but you don’t dive in.  You take in the beauty from the pier’s terminus, then you turn around and walk back along that entropic human construction, already well on its way to being consumed by the sea and sand, back to the life a visit to the seaside won’t permit you to escape.  You return to your meaningless existence with little more than a tan and a memory that will fade long before you bow your head, close your eyes, and shuffle off into that most quiet, dreamless sleep.


[1]. Or “faux-goth,” if you prefer.  The distinction is academic.

[2]. The tuning of the buildings is a wonderful metaphor for human perception’s unstable grasp on reality: either we grasp it or we don’t, and our control over it is a deciding factor on whether or not we consider it “real.”  While the ground under John’s feet literally shifts, slides, and shimmies, Proyas keeps the action moving — metaphor or not, these morphing skyscrapers serve as the setting for a breathless rooftop chase, one of the most innovative in genre cinema.

[3]. And played by Richard O’Brien, creator of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, in a brilliant bit of meta-serendipitous casting.

[4]. The phrase belongs to 20th c. philosopher Gilbert Ryle, but Plato, as foundational a pillar of Western thought as you can get, postulated the idea of an essence, or true form, that inhabited the body and departed at death, passing through an ether that erased its memories from the previous life before the essence was deposited in a new earth-body.  This may be why, whenever you look up Plato on Wikipedia, you are automatically redirected to Shirley Maclaine’s Imdb page.

[5]. The moment when we first see the terrifying truth of the humans’ situation is presented from the viewpoint of the heroic detective who has fallen through a rabbit hole of his own design (carved from rock with a sledgehammer, in fact; shades of the proletarian struggle?), floating through the void of space, his last living moments etched with the image of the black, pitiless and labyrinthine urban landscape that is less a city than a cosmic laboratory.

[6]. Yes, Star Trek fans, this is a DS9 reference.  Relish as you would a draught of Klingon bloodwine.

[7]. I regret that I must invoke a Metallica song this late in the essay to shore up a point, but the metaphor in “No Leaf Clover” was too appropriate to overlook.  Just be thankful I didn’t use any of Cliff Burton’s drunken ramblings from “To Live Is to Die.”

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