Film / Dark City

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

Dark City is a 1998 science-fiction film directed by Alex Proyas, starring 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. Daniel 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.

Also worth noting: The opening monologue 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.

We need to list the tropes, Mr. TV Tropes, yes :

  • Alas, Poor Villain: Mr. Hand is rather pathetic, almost pitiable, in his final moments with John as the Last of His Kind, wherein he fails completely to understand the true nature of humanity.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Arc Symbol: Circular mazes. Dr. Schreber has one in his office for testing rats, Walenski was driven mad into drawing them all around his apartment, and the city itself is maze-like and constantly changing. Not to mention the spaceship itself houses the city in a circular shape.
  • Arc Words:
    • "Remember."
    • "Do you know the way to Shell Beach?"
    • "You ever think about the past?"
    • "Shut it down."
  • Armor-Piercing Question: "Do you know the way to Shell Beach?" It's part of everyone's memory, but nobody remembers the trip due to the limits of the Strangers' constructions. The question tricks people into noticing the missing link.
    • "When was the last time you did anything during the day?"
  • 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.
  • Big Bad: Mr. Book.
  • Bio Punk: While it leans more toward Diesel Punk, the film incorporates a number of biopunk touches as well, and has had a big impact on many later biopunk works with a Retro Futuristic vibe. The development team for Bioshock, for instance, cited this film as a major influence on their designs not just in the plasmid technology but also for the city of Rapture as a whole.
  • 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.)
  • Creepy Good: Dr. Schreber is a paranoid, unsettling German scientist with a deformed eye and a limp, but he's actually working to stop the Strangers, while he himself is essentially their prisoner.
  • 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.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death:
    • One of the Strangers gets scalped when the giant metal hand of a woman on a billboard swings down and slices the back of his head off. Another Stranger falls through a wooden bridge and gets his neck tangled in ropes connected to gears, and when the gears start turning he's painfully strangled to death.
    • Another one gets smashed like a bug when he gets trapped between two moving buildings as the city is changing. Squelch!
    • Getting thrown out into space cannot have been pleasant for either Mr. Wall or Bumstead.
    • Mr. Book gets stabbed in the throat with a knife and then slammed into a watertower with great force.
  • 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.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Once Dr. Schreber gives him a whole lifetime of training via Exposition Beam, John trashes the Strangers in about five minutes of screen 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.
  • Exposition Beam: An Exposition Syringe. Doctor Schreber wants to give John a fighting chance against the reality warping Strangers, so he fills the last Syringe with both exposition and a lifetime of experience in using his matter manipulating powers. Carnage ensued.
  • 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: The most prominent Strangers:
  • 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 Beach 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.
  • A God Am I: The Strangers have this kind of mentality in regards of what they can do. They ain't bluffing.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Herr Doktor: Dr. Schreber. Subverted in that rather than being just a stereotypical mad scientist, he's actually trying to help John.
  • 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.
  • Intrigued by Humanity: To an extreme degree! The Strangers’ whole purpose in creating the city and performing their nightly experiments is to study humans in order to become like them and reverse the death of their species.
    Murdoch: You know how I was supposed to feel. That person isn’t me—never was. You wanted to know what it was about us that made us human. Well, you're not going to find it <<points at his head>> in here. You were looking in the wrong place.
  • 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.
  • Lamprey Mouth: The aliens' real bodies have one amidst a ring of tentacles.
  • Living Labyrinth: The city transforms at 12 o'clock, new buildings sprouting up and others retracting.
  • A Long Time Ago, in a Galaxy Far Far Away...: Where is the city? Has it been sealed from the world? No. There is no world - it's floating in space.
  • Looks Like Orlok: The Strangers, intentionally so since the movie is a visual homage to German Expressionism and Film Noir, with lots of Schizo Tech.
  • Meaningful Name: John Murdoch is supposedly a john who murders prostitutes. A prostitute even notes that his first name is appropriate.
  • Memory Jar: Dr. Schriber implants Fake Memories into people's heads with syringes, and he's later seen concocting the fluids that make up these memories.
  • Mind Rape: The entire premise of the mysterious syringes, and inverted when Mr. Hand makes use of John's memories to track him down.
  • Mind Screw: The premise is quite disturbing once you really start thinking through its implications.
  • Mister Strange Noun: All the Strangers use the naming convention "Mr. [noun]".
  • Mr. Exposition: Dr. Schreber, starting with the Opening Narration (which spoils the entire movie).
    Schreber: First there was darkness. Then came the Strangers. They were a race as old as time itself. They had mastered the ultimate technology: the ability to alter physical reality by will alone. They called this ability "Tuning". But they were dying. Their civilization was in decline, and so they abandoned their world seeking a cure for their own mortality. Their endless journey brought them to a small, blue world in the farthest corner of the galaxy. Our world. Here they thought they had finally found what they had been searching for.
  • Naked on Arrival: John Murdoch wakes up in a bathtub with no memories or a sense of identity.
  • 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.
  • Opening Monologue: The opening scene in the theatrical cut has Dr. Schreber give an introductory narration about the Strangers.
  • 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.
  • Powers as Programs: Dr. Schreber injects people with a substance that alters their skills and experiences in a heart beat.
  • 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."
  • Quest for Identity: John tries to find out who he is.
  • The Quisling: Dr. Schreber. He's grown tired of it by the time the film comes around, however, and acts like a 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.
  • The Reveal: The city is actually a giant spaceship. The theatrical version ruins this surprise with the opening monologue.
  • Roof Hopping: Murdoch confronts Hand and flees other Strangers after a roof-leaping chase. Unusually suspenseful in that the buildings are changing shape as he's running across them.
  • 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 Censor: Subtle example: the bathtub water is cloudy enough to conceal John's nudity in the opening scene.
  • 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.
  • Squashed Flat: Happens to one of the Strangers chasing Murdoch when he gets trapped between two moving buildings at the wrong time.
  • Taking You with Me: When Mr. Wall throws Bumstead out into space, the inspector manages to grab his coat and pull Mr. Wall with him through the forcefield.
  • Terrain Sculpting: The strangers do this all the time, using their "tuning" powers to reshape the labyrinthine architecture of the city to conduct their experiments on the human inhabitants. After their defeat at the end, Murdoch uses his own tuning powers to create an ocean at the edges of the city.
  • They Plotted a Perfectly Good Waste: The plot holes aren't. They're foreshadowing.
  • Thrown Out the Airlock: Or rather, thrown out the forcefield into space. So long, Bumstead and Mr. Wall.
  • 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 Murdoch isn't blindly wandering the City, but following the clues the Strangers set out for him as part of the Murdoch-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.
  • 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.
  • 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.)
  • When Things Spin, Science Happens: The Machine that amplifies the Strangers' powers rotates during the Tuning process.
  • 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.

You wanted to know what it was about us that made us human. Well, you're not going to find here.