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Film: Dark City

A world where the night never ends. Where man has no past. And humanity has no future.
Tagline

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. 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.


This movie provides examples of:

  • Alien Blood: The Strangers melt into goo or turn red and dissolve into flakes when they die; the dead human bodies they use as vessels have black blood.
  • 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.
  • Always Night: Every single scene until late in the film takes place during the dead of night. It is eventually revealed that this isn't just our perspective: It actually is always night in the city, yet nobody had noticed! Except for John Murdoch. That is why he's so dangerous to the Strangers.
  • 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.
  • Badass Longcoat: John, Inspector Bumstead and the Strangers.
  • Bad Boss: It's strongly implied that the Strangers beat Dr. Schreber within an inch of his life before forcing him to erase his own memories, leading to things like his bad heart, lazy eye, and limp. They also do things like dangle him off of very high balconies when he gets snarky with them.
  • Bald of Evil: All of 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.
    • The public might not notice, as they would be busy currently creating and forming their own memories for the first time. Essentially, this is the first day of their lives. The Strangers changed the city as an experiment so it's also safe to say John wouldn't pick up their habit. John is pretty much a benevolent god at this point, bringing an entire world into light.
    • Even Shell Beach, while finally real thanks to John, is just an offshoot of the bleak urban landscape right next door, with even the promise of new, happier memories overshadowed by the implication that the city's inhabitants will never truly escape.
  • Blank Book: Stranger-made artifacts of John's "childhood".
  • Blinded by the Light: Mr. Hand when the sun comes up.
  • The Chanteuse: Emma.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Dr. Schreber's special memory vial, which John pockets just prior to being captured.
  • 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: Mainly because it's a pastiche built from the mixed-and-matched memories of people abducted from numerous time periods throughout the Twentieth Century.
  • Closed Circle: The titular story itself.
  • Creepy Child: Mr. Sleep. (Who was played by a pair of very young fraternal twins.)
  • Crosscast Role: Mr Sleep is a child with the male honorific "Mr.", however he is played in closeups by a girl, and in the long shots by her fraternal twin brother. Of course, the character doesn't have to be male - the strangers may not have paid any attention to gender.
  • 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.
  • Cue the Sun: How the film ends. John, after having taken control of the massive space station, rotates it so that the sun is shining across its surface for the first time.
  • Curse Cut Short: Dr. Schreber, cut off mid-rant by Mr. Book.
    Schreber: Maybe you've finally found what you're looking for, and it's going to bite you on your — aahh!!
  • Cyberpunk with a Chance of Rain: It's always dark in the city. Justified by the eponymous city being controlled by aliens who can't stand strong light.
  • Dark World: The title should say it all.
  • Dawn of an Era: See "End of the World" Special.
  • Days of Future Past: According to the director, although his co-screenwriters have a different interpretation.
  • Doppelgänger Replacement Love Interest: Anna
  • Driven to Suicide: Walenski finally found a way out.
  • Dying Race: The Strangers are studying humans because their Hive Mind society is dying out and they need the secret to individuality.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Strangers are squid-like beings that use corpses as hosts.
  • Eldritch Location: The Strangers can adjust the architecture of the city at will.
  • "End of the World" Special: The last 10 minutes, in which John frees the world from the shackles of The Strangers and recreates it to be a better place for all those who inhabit it.
  • Establishing Character Moment: John saving the goldfish at the beginning demonstrates his good nature. Bumstead even takes note of it during his investigation.
  • Evil Albino: The Strangers, on account of the fact that their bodies are technically dead.
  • Exposition Beam: The last syringe Dr. Schreber uses on John.
  • Fake Memories: Regularly and on a city-wide scale.
  • Femme Fatale: Subverted quickly with Emma. She's got the look, but she's a Nice Girl who wants to help John regain his memory.
  • Five-Bad Band:
  • Flashback Cut: John's shattered memories of Shell Beach. Also how Dr. Schreber presents himself to John to teach him to master Tuning in mere seconds.
  • Focus Group Ending: Test screening audiences were "troubled" by the notion that the entire city wasn't sucked out into space once the Shell City Wall was breached. Thus, a last minute SFX addition of Bumstead and a Stranger drifting through a force field was created.
  • Forced Sleep: The Strangers have the ability to put people to sleep simply by waving a hand and saying "Sleep now." They also combine forces to put the entire city to sleep so they can work undisturbed.
  • 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?
    • Bumstead notes that Emma seems unused to wearing her wedding ring.
  • Genius Cripple: Dr. Schreber may suffer from a bad heart, a lazy eye and a limp but he's very good at what he does for The Strangers.
  • 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.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Inspector Walenski. Hey, you'd go crazy too if you found out that your entire life is a lie manufactured by a dying alien race that messes with your head on an hourly basis.
  • A God Am I: The Strangers have this kind mentality in regards of what they can do. They ain't bluffing.
  • Gone Horribly Right: John Murdoch. The Strangers wanted to test humans and see what would happen. Murdoch happened. Dr. Schreber actually taunts them with this when they complain.
  • Guns Are Worthless: Inspector Bumstead learns this the hard and tragic way.
  • Happy Place: Shell Beach, which everyone knows yet no one knows how to reach. Unlike the perpetual darkness of the city, visions of Shell Beach are in bright, oversaturated sunshine. 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. It's only the appearance of John which allows him to act on it.
  • Hive Mind: The Strangers. They're all a bunch of alien worms living in human shells and all share the same thoughts of what to do.
  • Homage: This film is a love letter to German Expressionism and the classic Film Noir era. See Shout-Out for more details.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: Mr. Book is taken out by a telekinetically-thrown knife to the throat. Though the knife doesn't actually do him in, crashing into a water tower as he's flailing about does.
  • Info Dump: A well-done one, when Dr. Schreber explains the nature of the City to Murdoch and Bumstead.
  • 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.
  • Kill It with Water: A key weakness of the Strangers.
  • Kubrick Stare: The Strangers are pretty good at these, as is John.
  • 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 inverted when Mr. Hand makes use of John's memories to track him down.
  • Mister Strange Noun: All the Strangers use the naming convention "Mr. [noun]".
  • Naked on Arrival: John Murdoch wakes up in a bathtub.
  • Nervous Wreck: Dr. Schreber. Given what The Strangers do to him on a daily basis, it's more than justified with him.
  • The Night That Never Ends: Not only is it part of the film's atmosphere, it becomes a plot point.
  • Parental Abandonment: John is given this history in his fake memories.
  • Person of Mass Destruction: John, once he gains his "tuning" powers and uses them to defeat The Strangers.
  • Pillar of Light: A beam of light appears as the dark world dissolves.
  • Platonic Cave: In this case the "cave" is an alien spaceship/laboratory made up to look like an American city ca. the 1930s.
  • Psychic Powers: "Tuning", represented as a wave effect from the user's forehead which either works as a directed burst of force or warps the City to their whim.
  • 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, in the context of being able to change aspects of the City as they please.
  • 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: The city, the lighting, the cinematography, it's gorgeous.
  • Shout-Out:
    • To Nosferatu, as each of the Strangers Looks Like Orlok.
    • The Strangers are also partially based on the mob from M.
    • Dr. Schreber is named after a real person, Daniel Paul Schreber, a German judge. Why would a psychiatrist be named after a Judge? Because the judge wrote Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, an account of his symptoms during nine years of Dementia praecox.
  • 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.
  • Time Stands Still: Sort of. The Strangers shut down the city at midnight each night. When they do this, everyone stops what they're doing and falls asleep. It's shown that people driving cars and doing other things take steps to stop what they're doing first, so they don't accidentally injure themselves or others. John wakes up during one such event is immune after that, and it's implied Walenski is the same way (but has no powers), hence why he's crazy.
  • To Know Him I Must Become Him: Mr. Hand's justification for being injected with John's memories. Other Strangers consider it a bad idea, primarily because attempting to imprint Strangers with human memories always results in the recipient Stranger's death. Mr. Book is willing to go along with it anyway, because Murdock isn't blindly wandering the City, but following the clues the Strangers set out for him as part of the Murdock-as-serial-killer experiment. The imprint will lead them down the path he's following far faster than trying to re-create the experiment. And besides, Mr. Hand is really interested in giving human sociopathy a try.
  • Tomato Surprise: The city is actually a giant spaceship. The theatrical version ruins this surprise with the opening narration.
  • Took a Level in Badass: John. He starts off as confused, almost naive man trying to figure out his identity but by the end, he becomes God.
  • Undead Child: Mr. Sleep, technically. Once again, the parasites inhabiting the corpses of those who once lived.
  • 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. (It is mentioned he has a bad heart. Congestive heart failure would lead to an extreme shortness of breath.)
  • Window Love: John and Emma are about to do this. Then John breaks the glass instead.
  • World Gone Mad: In the climax, Mr. Book and John's psychic battle overloads the Tuning machine, causing the entire city to start uncontrollably warping.

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FollowingFilm NoirFight Club
A Civil ActionFilms of the 1990sDead Man On Campus

alternative title(s): Dark City
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