It should not be too much of a surprise that Alex Proyas is turning to literary adaptations and moving away from sci-fi. He is currently in pre-production from Paradise Lost, an action movie based on John Milton’s Christian epic poem dramatizing the war between God and Lucifer. Later he’ll be directing Dracula: Year Zero that seems to about the historical and mythological origins of the first vampire. The Greek director’s 90s output (The Crow, Dark City) was informed by classical and religious texts coated with slick and anachronistic sets – a style similar to Terry Gilliam’s, if less dependent on occasional Monty Python humour.
Critics and fans have had a lot to say about Dark City (1998), a neo noir science fiction film about John Murdoch, an amnesia-stricken citizen of a world run by soulless aliens called ” Strangers”. Here are some of the ideas being thrown around:
Theologian Gerard Loughlin explains the popular theory that Murdoch’s journey is an allegory of Plato’s Cave. See his book Alien Sex: The Body and Desire in Cinema and Theology (pages 46-8) for the full passage.
In the time before the story of the film opens, Murdoch is like most of the city’s other inhabitants, prisoners who do not know they are prisoners in a city that is the projection of the ‘strangers’ […] Each night at midnight, the city stops. It is then that the strangers transform the city through their collective and mechanically augmented will power, raising and lowering city blocks, rearranging roads and rail tracks, and changing the memories of the city’s inhabitants.
Murdoch’s journey out of the city-cave is assisted by Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), producing the memory cocktails that are nightly administered to the city’s sleeping inhabitants. Like Socrates to Glaucon, Shreber carefully explains to Murdoch the means by which the shadows are cast. In order to learn the secret of the city, Murdoch does not ascend above it, but it led beneath it, into its bowels. Nor is he simply the prisoner become Glaucon, he is a Glaucon who comes to realize that Socrates’ tale of an upper, more real world, is itself a shadow, a forgery.
(Glaucon is the one listening to Socrates tell his allegory, as documented by Plato in his The Republic) Instead of being given an educational role, it seems that by the end of Dark City Murdoch has simply replaced the Strangers. He pretties up the place, but it’s still a fantasy, now his own fantasy. Blinding sunlight has washed out the darkness and water has filled the deep space void that surrounds the city – but is his life any more “real” than it was before, or his soul more permanent?
In this way the film has a conventional ‘happy ending’, that is nevertheless disturbing, since John Murdoch’s newly enlightened world exists only as he wills it, based on childhood memories that are themselves illusions, without originals within the city-cave.
Keoni Chavez of Screened.com wrote about Dark City, Inception, The Matrix, and Christian Gnosticism, the belief that a being called a ‘demiurge’ created the material world, an illusion in the path of true divine illumination and salvation. You can see where this is going:
In each of these films, there is a baseline universe that is hidden to those without the proper knowledge of how to access it. In Dark City, control is achieved through “tuning”, a way to influence matter through the power of the mind. In The Matrix, the running computer simulation that informs the title of the movie is so convincing that special effort must be made to overcome the illusion and see the world for what it truly is. In Inception things are a little reversed: reality is fine, but through proper training, one’s dreams can be shaped into worlds as real-seeming as anything.
Even if normal, continuous reality is unattainable (as in Dark City), the hero’s task is to find other planes of reality or other planes of being. Murdoch has to escape from the trap of the memories he holds to be his own. In that sense he has to lose himself, transcend the individual to come to an understanding of the city’s collective consciousness. Not surprisingly, he draws closer to the Strangers’ “hive mind”, where there is no individual soul or memory but a shared pool of knowledge – memory in a communist state.
A blogger I used to follow had a fascinating idea about the ultimate point of human existence, and, while this may sound outlandish and unrelated t0 Dark City, think of it as an extension of Proyas’ explorations of knowledge and reality:
A rock is a rock, but it also embodies the concept of ‘rock’. For ease of visualization, a concept can be regarded as a singular point in some vast hypothetical space. There are millions of these conceptual points in the human consciousness.
But, the writer reminds us, human consciousness changes and grows through time. Gravity was not a known concept five hundred years ago, yet it existed outside the space of human knowledge:
Now if one were to consider all of these concept-points that exist but are not yet perceived, the night sky fills up with countless more stars […] Now we visualize what appears to be the sum total of all knowledge.
Spinoza believed God to be the sum total of physical laws that described the universe, and the writer comes to a similar conclusion:
I argue that this sum total of all conceptual points and connections is God […] If all of these conceptual points were to be perceived by one consciousness there would still be one unknown concept: nothing. This consciousness would not be able to perceive the concept of nothing, because to completely understand nothing you must know no-thing. The remedy to this problem is simple, however. Create a machine that accumulates knowledge, then delete everything in this conscious network. The aforementioned machine can then re-accumulate all knowledge into a conscious network again.
And, the final argument (one that would make an excellent premise for an Alex Proyas movie):
I further argue that this machine that re-accumulates knowledge is what has come to be known as life. Our universe is its operating environment.