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

Character tropes go on to the Characters Sheet.


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

  • Action Survivor: Before he learns how to master his Tuning, John Murdoch's just a terrified guy trying to survive as best as he can, but he actually manages to kill a few Strangers through quick thinking and luck, and knocks down Mr. Hand with one punch during their rooftop confrontation.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Mr. Hand is rather pathetic, almost pitiable, in his final moments with John, wherein he fails completely to understand the true nature of humanity, or the truly evil nature of his actions. It's rather sad when he admits to John that he's dying, especially assuming that when he's gone, there will be none left.
  • 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?"
  • 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.
  • Beam-O-War: Twice during John's final battle with Mr. Book, the second time involving a thrown knife as well.
  • 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.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Dr. Schreber's special memory vial, which John pockets just prior to being captured.
  • Chiaroscuro: As part of the homage to German Expressionism.
  • 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.)
  • 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.
  • Days of Future Past: According to the director, although his co-screenwriters have a different interpretation.
  • Diesel Punk: The one of the more important Trope Codifiers, cementing the aesthetics's connections to Noir and a vaguely Spiritualist/Lovecraftian breed of Applied Phlebotinum bordering on Magitech.
  • Disposable Sex Worker: Enforced by the Strangers, who give prostitute identities to certain women, then kill them, and then give John memories of killing them—all in order to see if he will kill another woman chosen to be a prostitute. John refuses to follow through, but once Mr. Hand gets John’s manufactured memories he finds and kills her.
  • 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.
  • Everything's Better with Sparkles: Emma's first dress we see her performing in is a sparkly green number.
  • Evil Brit: The Strangers all speak with English RP accents. Non-American actors Rufus Sewell (British) and Melissa George (Australian) use American accents as their more sympathetic characters.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Mr. Hand's final conversation with John, who tells him the Strangers were looking for humanity "in the wrong place."
  • 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.
  • Fan Disservice: We get a few shots of topless prostitutes, but since said prostitutes are dead and covered in spiral carvings at the time, it's hardly erotic.
  • Fake Memories: Regularly and on a city-wide scale.
  • Five-Bad Band: The most prominent Strangers:
  • Five-Second Foreshadowing: When John and Bumstead smash through the wall of "Shell Beach", Bumstead almost falls out but John saves him. Moments later, the Strangers attack and Bumstead goes out through the force-field for real.
  • 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:
    • John is noticeably bleeding from his forehead in the first scene, which not only foreshadows the memory injections but also the aliens in the Strangers' bodies, which enter and leave through wounds in their foreheads.
    • 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.
    • Murdoch taking the fish from it's shattered bowl and placing it in a bathtub.
  • 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.
  • Good All Along: Dr. Schreber.
  • 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.
  • Graceful Ladies Like Purple: Emma wears a purple dress when performing "The Night Has A Thousand Eyes", and also has a purple coat she wears in the latter half of the movie.
  • Green and Mean: Invoked. Most of the clothes John has arranged for him are green and the Strangers were planning to imprint him with the personality of a serial killer.
  • 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 reveals that he's actually on humanity's side after all.
  • Hero of Another Story: Some of the Strangers' conversations imply that Murdoch wasn't the first to wake up when he wasn't supposed to. Mr. Wall mentions an incident where another Stranger seems to have been killed, asking the others if they remember what happened "last time". It's possible that Detective Walenski was one of those people.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Light Feminine and Dark Feminine: The prostitute May is blonde, upbeat and friendly (Light). John's wife Emma is brunette, troubled and distant (Dark).
  • 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.
  • Knife Nut: All the Strangers carry nasty-looking extendable knives which they love to threaten people with.
  • Memory Jar: Dr. Schreiber 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. The movie starts with a white desk clerk changing to a black guy between camera cuts and just keeps rolling from there.
  • Mohs Scale of Violence Hardness: It rates a fairly light 7, with the two scenes of dead, topless prostitutes killed by the Strangers as the only explicit gory scenes. A couple of the other Strangers die in some fairly messy ways, but the effect isn't as gruesome due to the fact that their blood is bluish-black and not red.
  • Naked on Arrival: John Murdoch wakes up in a bathtub with no memories or a sense of identity.
  • The Night That Never Ends: Not only is it part of the film's atmosphere, it becomes a plot point.
  • Noodle Incident: Apparently John wasn't the first "experiment" to wake up when he wasn't supposed to, and it's implied that another Stranger was killed as a result. When the Strangers are preparing to inject Mr. Hand with John's memories, Mr. Wall warns the others against the procedure, asking if they remember what happened "last time", and another Stranger agrees, lamenting "poor, poor Mr. [somebody]".
  • Opening Monologue: The opening scene in the theatrical cut has Dr. Schreber give an introductory narration about 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.
  • Power Floats: The Strangers move by eerily gliding, stock-still, around the city.
  • Powers as Programs: Dr. Schreber injects people with a substance that alters their skills and experiences in a heart beat.
  • Production Throwback: The movie theater advertises Book of Dreams, a previous film by Alex Proyas.
  • 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.
  • La Résistance: Schreber works as The Quisling for the Strangers, but has been secretly waiting for the moment to undermine them.
  • 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.
  • R-Rated Opening: John Murdoch discovering a topless, mutilated prostitute in the room next door to his in the first scene (although oddly enough, this is one of only two times where we see blood or nudity).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Transferable Memory: The Strangers are trying to isolate the human soul by tracking the effects of swapping memories around various people.
  • Weaksauce Weakness: The Strangers hate water, which is likely the reason that they designed the city with little to no water sources, and Shell Beach does not exist.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: The Strangers are conducting the city as an experiment into the nature of the human soul in order to save their dying race, and it's implied that they don't truly understand the cruelty of their actions.
  • 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.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: John becomes one by the end, although he probably won't destroy the world.
  • 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 it..in here.

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