The story concerns a man waking in a hotel room with no memory, which soon proves to be but one of many troubles. He is sought by police, who believe him to be a serial killer, and also by a group of mysterious men with psychokinetic powers. Furthermore, something appears to be wrong with the world at large: time, memory, and identity behave in unusual ways.
Murdoch questions the dark urban environment and discovers through clues and interviews with his family that he was originally from a coastal town called Shell Beach. Attempts at finding a way out of the city to Shell Beach are hindered by lack of reliable information. Meanwhile, the Strangers, disturbed by the presence of a human who retains their powers (which they refer to as tuning) inject one of their men, Mr. Hand (Richard O'Brien) with Murdoch's lost memories, in an attempt to track down Murdoch.
Constantly on the run, Murdoch witnesses the Strangers altering the city's landscape and people's identities during the still period at midnight, during which time everyone is unconscious. Murdoch eventually meets Bumstead, who recognizes Murdoch's innocence and has his own questions about the nature of the dark city. They find and confront Dr. Schreber, who explains that the Strangers are endangered alien parasites with a collective consciousness who are experimenting on humans to analyze the nature versus nurture concept of their human hosts in order to survive. 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, which ultimately exists only as a billboard at the edge of the city. Frustrated, Murdoch tears through the wall, revealing a hole into deep space. The men are confronted by the Strangers, including Mr. Hand, who holds Emma hostage. In the ensuing fight, Bumstead falls through the hole into space, revealing the city as an enormous space habitat surrounded by a force field.
The Strangers bring Murdoch to their home beneath the city and force Dr. Schreber to imprint Murdoch with their collective memory. Schreber, having worked for the Strangers, betrays them by instead inserting memories in Murdoch that train his tuning abilities. Murdoch awakens, fully realizing his abilities, breaks free and battles with the Strangers, defeating the leader Mr. Book (Ian Richardson) in a battle high above the city. Utilizing his newfound powers, Murdoch begins reshaping the city, returning the sun, flooding the areas surrounding the city with water and forming mountains and beaches, creating the actual Shell Beach.
The Strangers who survived Mr. Book's death retreat from the sunlight to die underground. On his way to Shell Beach, Murdoch encounters Mr. Hand and informs him that the Strangers have been searching in the wrong place, the head, to understand humanity. Murdoch opens the door leading out of the city, and steps into sunlight for the first time. Beyond him is a dock, where he finds Emma, now with new memories and a new identity as Anna, with no recollection of Murdoch. They reintroduce and walk to Shell Beach, beginning their relationship anew.
Director Alex Proyas wrote Dark City in 1990 and initially had the project attached to Walt Disney Pictures and then 20th Century Fox. The studios reneged on their agreements with Proyas due to their issues with the complexity of the story. New Line Cinema eventually accepted the project for production. Before the final title of Dark City, the film had the working titles of Dark Empire and Dark World. The film begins with a voice-over narration that gives away several key plot twists, which Proyas says was studio-imposed and "unnecessary".
The initial ending for Dark City was originally bleak, with the Strangers claiming victory. Proyas, not liking the ending, decided to alter it to focus on the "individual's triumph" in an environment where individuality was being suppressed.
Director Alex Proyas saw actor Rufus Sewell in several English television productions and a London stage show and decided to cast the actor in the lead role of Dark City.
Proyas cited actor Richard O'Brien, who portrays the Stranger Mr. Hand in Dark City, as the inspiration for the design of the Strangers themselves. Proyas was familiar with the actor's previous work and held discussions with O'Brien and other actors who portrayed the Strangers to emulate O'Brien's presentation.
The character Dr. Daniel P. Schreber was originally envisioned by Proyas to be an older man. During the casting process, Proyas decided to have the doctor portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland, who the director believed would seem more motivated to break free of the Strangers if he was young and still had potential.
The morphing of the city landscape in Dark City was an idea by Proyas taken from production of his previous film, The Crow (1993). The film had a rooftop set in which smaller-scale buildings were moved around to create different backgrounds, accomplished by workers out of sight. Proyas recalled the implementation to use in Dark City. The director also included anachronisms in the film, such as a car from the 1980s driving by in the film, set in an earlier era. The city in the film was built from human memories, so the director aimed to blend together various elements to reflect the combination.
In the 1982 Doctor Who story "Castrovalva", as the Doctor and his companions explore the titular city, they continually find themselves back at the same courtyard, and realize the city folds back on itself and there is no exit. Eventually the native inhabitants of the city begin to realize their lives and memories have been created and manipulated by an outside force.
Spirals are a prominent visual element, similar to Uzumaki by Junji Ito, which was released around the same time as Dark City. Uzumaki also features (toward the end) the idea of an inescapable, spiral-shaped city.
Fritz Lang's 1927 movie Metropolis was a major influence on the film, showing through the architecture, concepts of the baseness of humans within a metropolis, and general tone. The artwork for the soundtrack (below) also strongly resembles the iconic "clock machine" from Metropolis.
The plot also contains many similarities to Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, Philip K. Dick's short story Adjustment Team, and Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars. The random permutation of people's social identities is reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges's short story "The Lottery in Babylon
References to Memoirs of My Nervous Illness by Daniel Paul Schreber (after whom character Dr. Schreber is named) can be found in the film, notably in the use of his "fleetingly-improvised men" concept. The film has also been interpreted as containing references to the Bible, with John Murdoch being an allegorical Jesus; for example, the number of the room John is in at the film's beginning — 614 — may evoke John 6:14, a biblical verse in which Jesus' followers say of him, "This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world."
The film bears resemblance to Frederik Pohl's short story "The Tunnel Under the World", where an entire community is held captive by advertising researchers and have their memories of the day wiped clean every night as they sleep.
The soundtrack for the film was released on February 24, 1998 on the TVT label. It features music from the original score by Trevor Jones, and versions of the songs "Sway" and "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes" performed by singer Anita Kelsey. It also includes music by Hughes Hall from the trailer, as well as songs by Gary Numan, Echo & the Bunnymen, and Course of Empire that did not appear in the film.
|1998||Bram Stoker Award||Best Screenplay (tying with Gods and Monsters)|
|1998||Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival - Silver Scream Award|
|1999||Saturn Award||Best Science Fiction Film (tying with Armageddon)|
|1999||Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film - Pegasus Audience Award|
|1999||Film Critics Circle of Australia Award||Best Original Screenplay|
It was also nominated for the following awards: