Dark City: A Dystopian Synthetic World
Warning: This review does contain spoilers.
If you have not yet watched the film, and would like to figure out the detective story for yourself, please read no further.
Note: This article uses the original release, not the director's cut. As such, some scenes appear out of order to that version.
Its a dark, dark city. Right from the onset, several sweeping panoramas show a real mix of architecures: Victorian, Edwardian, Art Deco, European, American, even some that are pure whimsy, all co-existing in the same busy city. It has a definite 50s feel, but looks odd, artificial somehow. Its hard to pin down, but in some shots the city looks fabricated, in others it blurs into almost feeling natural. One of the great oddities is that every single building stands apart. Two buildings can be next to one another, but they never, ever join. Its almost as if they grew separately.
The air is dusty, grimy, soot is everywhere, and the camera itself has a hard time seeing into the distance. Elevated trains rush past, as three lanes of traffic fill every street. The hustle and bustle of a major metropolis fully evident. No planes fill the skies, no birds.
A clock strikes 12, and as it does so, things begin to slow. People walking on the pavements stop mid-step, and fall to the ground. Street venders do likewise. The cars slow to a stop, and the occupants slump forwards. Even the elevated trains slow, their lights never faltering. Within seconds all is stillness.
That is when things start to turn peculiar. An unseen narrator twells of an alien race, a race of Strangers, who possessed great technological power, but found themselves dying, a falling civilisation. They searched all of space for something, until they happened on a small planet tucked away in the corner of one of the spiral arms. They are now studying the inhabitants, studying to find something they themselves have lost; to quantify it, and to replicate it. A huge laboratory, and the humans are the lab rats.
The narrator does not know what year it is, or even who he is. He calls himself Dr. Daniel Schreber. It is who he remembers being, but he knows with memories swapped and mixed daily, that does not mean a thing. His lack of memory from before he started working for the Strangers does not sway his belief that he does not know who he is, at all. All memories have been taken from the humans, locked away. Every night, the city itself is changed, altered in some way. He helps the strangers, swapping memories around, implanting new personas in people, erasing the old sense of self and starting anew, as the Strangers play endlessly with combinations, trying to quantify what they seek.
Still, even in a tightly controlled lab, there are spontaneous, unplanned mutations.
Enter John Murdoch. Murdoch awakes with a start in a hotel bathtub, unable to remember anything of his past. Its dark outside, and he slowly clambers from the bath, trying to work out what is going on. As he stumbles into his hotel room, he receives a phone call from Dr. Schreber, who clearly knows him, but whom he has no recolection of. The stuttering doctor urges Murdoch to flee, to get out of there before dire consequences occur - they are coming for him, the strangers.
Its at this point that Murdoch discovers the still-warm corpse of a brutalised, ritualistically murdered woman, spiral curves lacerated into her body with a sharp implement. He also finds a bloody knife. Paniced, he flees the hotel, not knowing what to do. As he leaves, tall gaunt men, seeming utter out of place, hairless and dressed all in black arrive at his room. The Strangers.
During the chase, trying to flee from the strangers, he makes a remarkable discovery: Somehow, he knows not how, if he concentrates, he can reach out with his mind, and move things. Its not telekinetics, not as such. Rather, its almost as if he can reach out, grab the attention of the great unknowable that commands reality, and order it to do his bidding.
He cannot order it to do much; unlock doors, unlatch fire exits, make stairs descend. Still, it proves invaluable in aiding his escape. Indeed, the Strangers react, shocked, to his abilities. Each of them can do the exact same thing. They call it tuning, and they know why they can do it. But a human? With that power? Impossible! The Strangers retreat to a central chamber underground to discuss this development.
Meanwhile, Murdoch finds a postcard. It is labelled "Shell Beach". The postcard conjures up stirrings of memory for him; memory of growing up there. He decides it is a start, and sets off to Shell Beach to rediscover his roots.
The problem is, its not that easy: Every subway car, every other billboard shows something of shell beach on it, there's even a subway stop labelled shell beach - that no trains apparently can get to. Everyone remembers it - everyone remembers growing up there, but it seems no-one can remember the way to get there.
Every night at midnight, everyone except Murdoch goes to sleep. Every night a percentage wake up as somebody else. Murdoch meets a man, who used to be a policeman, in a subway station. The man is near mad, raving. He was supposed to go to sleep at midnight but didn't, and was conscious when the Strangers came to re-imprint him. He's terrified, been on the run for a week. He too tried to get to shell beach, but found only one train goes there, the express. Problem is, the express doesn't stop, ever. It continually loops at over a hundred miles an hour, blasting anything that tries to go down that tunnel. The man says its ok, because he's figured a way out, a place they cannot find him. The express blasts out of a tunnel into the station, and the man leaps past Murdoch, leaping in front of it as it exits.
The Strangers meanwhile, have not been idle, one of their own, Mr Hand, is commanded by their leader, Mr Book, to take on the memories intended for Murdoch, to use them to track him down. He has a tuning ability which must be found and removed. Midnight again, and Murdoch watches yet again as old buildings dissolve into the ground, whilst new ones sprout and grow like trees.
The Strangers are doing this. A large number of them are tuning each Midnight. They are mentally addressing commands to the great machine in their chamber, a machine which controls all of reality within the city. It is this machine, this computer, whice Murdoch's brain is reaching out to and commanding. Murdoch's abilities continue to slowly grow.
Murdoch eventually meets Bumstead, the police detective who was chasing him. During the interrogation, Murdoch turns the tables on Bumstead, asking him if he remembers the sun. Bumstead does. Can he remember the last time he's seen it? The last time he did not work at night? Any time he can remember daylight since childhood? Slowly Bumstead comes round, and agrees to help Murdoch find Shell Beach - where they both grew up.
They find and confront Dr. Schreber, who explains that the Strangers are endangered alien parasites with a collective consciousness. They have taken and are living off of dead human bodies to survive - this is why they look so pale. They are experimenting on humans to analyse the human concept of self-identity, which they lack, and one which they believe will rejuvenate their civilisation. Schreber reveals Murdoch as an anomaly who inadvertently woke up during the midnight process with the ability to tune.
The three men embark to find Shell Beach, journeying to the outer edges of the city. There, they find the sign welcoming them to shell beach - above a brick wall which seemingly goes on forever - it seems almost like it encircles the entire city. The three men stare at a portion of the wall, as the Strangers arrive, to collect them, telling them theirquest was futile - there is no Shell Beach as they can plainly see.
Neither Bumstead, nor Murdoch are prepared to give up however. They grab sledgehammers from some nearby construction, and hammer away at the wall until it breaks. What floods in is starlight, cold night starlight. There is no ground beyond the wall, there are no clouds, just stars and space. Finally defeated, they slump disbelieving. Mr Hand attempts to collect them, along with Murloch's wife - or who thinks she is his wife - Emma. A fight breaks out. During the fight, Bumstead barrels one of the Strangers through the hole in the wall. He and the stranger move on separate trajectories, spinning out into the night.
As Bumstead leaves the city, he looks back disbelieving. He is rising above it, he can see the whole city, a disc, a circle of buildings, floating in space. The wall, runs right around it, and there is nothing else at all. About a half mile out, he passes through some sort of force barrier, and finds himself in deep space. He closes his eyes and knows nothing more.
The Strangers bring Murdoch to their home beneath the city and force Dr. Schreber to imprint Murdoch with their collective memory, hoping to makehim into one of them. However, Schreber, betrays the Strangers with his own set of memories instead - he gives Murdoch a lifetime of experience, with him, learning the secrrets of the great machine and how to utilise it fully. In the memories, he tells Murdoch over and over again, what he must do to free humanity.
Murdoch opens his eyes. A stranger leans forwards, to see if he is now one of them. Murdoch blasts himself out of his restraints, and sends the Stranger flying. He has every override code for the great machine, and he is using them. The computer leaps to do his bidding, locking many of the Strangers out, and ripping the cavern apart, reshaped to splinters by Murdoch's will.
The creatures fly everywhere as those with a connection try to tune back at him. Many parts of the habitat explode, and the dome of the chamber cracks open as Murdoch reaches out, and blasts them back, altering reality as he flies upwards, Mr Book, the strongest of the Strangers in hot pursuit. Buildings fold like cards as the two of them square off above the city.
Murdoch flings Mr Book back, simultaneously reshaping the city. A towering skyscraper topped by a mammoth water tower begins to form, and pull itself skywards. As Mr Book tumbes back, the water tower rises to meet him. The two converge, violently, and Mr Book's body explodes.
He is not finished there however. Murdoch closes his eyes and the great generators under the habitat strain with power. Water bursts forth from every point along the surrounding wall, filling as deep as it can go, and flowing out to the forcefield wall. Rocks rise up around that wall, and a rocky pinnacle forms, a lighthouse erupting from the tip and beginning to shine. A small village unfolds under it, and Shell Beach's beaches begin to form.
Still surging with power, the system obeys its next command. What Strangers still alive, shriek and run for the darkness as a new sun blossoms. Held within the forcefield, this lightsource glows brilliantly above the city, illuminating it fully, for the first time, ever.
The strangers are defeated, but the cost was high. The memory storage facility was completely destroyed in the battle. There is no way to recover the real identities of anyone. Murloch is essentially a god in this new realm, a worldlet, floating in space.