Program Notes: Dark City (1998)

What if everything we regard as reality is false, a construct manufactured to keep us docile and contented, while behind the scenes sinister forces are working to undo mankind?

And, no, we’re not talking about The Matrix.

A year before that landmark film came out, another movie hit theater screens the pretty much the same idea. It was called Dark City and while not entirely successful, it was a spectacularly visionary movie that has since achieved cult status.

Written and directed by Alex Proyas, who four years earlier made another cult classic, The Crow, Dark City is a bizarre blend of surreal imagery, ‘40s film noir, and gonzo sci-fi.

The premise – as explained to us in a voice-over narration – is that members of a dying alien civilization are attempting to colonize Earth.

Film Screening:
Dark City (1998)
Monday, Mar. 4 at 6:30 p.m.
Central Library

In the movie’s haunting opening moments, clocks in a densely-populated city stop at midnight. At the same time, all activity ceases. Cars slow down and coast to a standstill. People collapse into a deep sleep.

While they’re sawing logs, odd things happen. Buildings grow and shrink like organic creatures. People who were working class when they passed out will awaken to find themselves living in posh mansions.

Weirdest of all are the aliens, who walk among the sleeping humans. They are tall, thin men with pale skins and bald heads. They wear long black trench coats and black hats in a variety of styles.

They can defy gravity, floating gracefully like the ghostly human figures in a Magritte painting.

Once the night’s work is done the clocks all start up again and the humans awaken, simply accepting any changes wrought while they were unconscious. Moreover, they never question why it’s always night.

But John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) is somehow immune to much of this trickery. He awakens in a seedy motel room to find himself with a dead woman and no memory of who he is. Fleeing the bloody scene, he realizes he is the only conscious human in the city.

And gradually John realizes that he has telekenetic powers.

Proyas’ screenplay finds John scrambling to discover and remember his past. He discovers he has a wife (Jennifer Connelly), who croons jazz ballads in a smoky nightclub.

Meanwhile he’s being pursued by a weary but dogged police detective (William Hurt) who likes John for the murders of several prostitutes.

And then there’s the nut-job psychiatrist (Kiefer Sutherland in a case of overacting for the ages) who has become the aliens’ ally, conducting nasty experiments on human subjects.

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Dark City wants its big reveals to shake us, but the movie quickly runs out of narrative steam, particularly since we’re not asked to establish any kind of emotional attachment to the characters. (Depending upon what the visitors do to you overnight, you could awaken with an entirely different job and it’s hard for the audience to establish a personal relationship.)

But visually Dark City is some sort of masterpiece of production design.

The film is in many ways an homage to the great silent science fiction epic Metropolis, with elevated highways packed with cars winding between tall buildings. The sooty brick walls, neon lights and wet sidewalks are straight out of a ‘40s film noir playbook – old-fashioned dial telephones, pre-digital machinery.

But there are some odd incongruities, like automobiles that harken from the ‘50s and ‘60s (the result of the visitors mixing up various eras in their clumsy attempts to achieve a suitable environment).

Critic Roger Ebert has long championed Dark City as a visionary work. Only now, after more than a decade, are the rest of us catching up with it.

Other films in the series “While the City Sleeps: After Dark”

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:


Admission to these films is free.

The series complements While the City Sleeps, the 2013 Adult Winter Reading Program.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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