Wednesday, July 1, 2009
When the Matrix made it's debut in 1999, it was praised for it's stylish sensibilities and the way it redefined the sci-fi genre. However, the originality of it's premise has frequently been called into question by fans of a much lesser known film called Dark City (which was released just one year before), and these allegations helped boost the film to it's current cult status. However, to claim that the Matrix not only had the same goals, but also had the malicious intent of aping Dark City would be to fundamentally misinterpret what both films were trying to do.
The most prominent similarity between Dark City and the Matrix is the existential dilemma at their very cores. John (Rufus Sewell) and Neo (Keanu Reeves) have primal doubts about the legitimacy of their realities, and their paranoia is given form when they are pursued by bogeymen who would strip them of their individuality and turn them into cogs of the greater machine. They get to experience the trauma of being born all over again; they are thrust into their worlds naked, submerged in water and assaulted with information from all sides. However, the device is used in entirely different contexts. While John's birth represents his initial tumble down the rabbit hole, Neo is tumbling out of it.
In terms of morality, the Matrix draws a sharp contrast with the war between the humans and the machines, as opposed to the much more nuanced struggle between John and the aliens. I can see why some would consider this to be the most common thread between them given the collective nature of their enemies, but the way both films distinguish the relationship between the protagonists and antagonists is where Dark City and the Matrix differ the most. The Matrix pits the machines against the humans in a direct show of hostility, and their only directive is to endlessly consume, a not-so-subtle reflection of humanity's penchant for mindless consumption. However, the aliens in Dark City hold no such hostility, and their ultimate agenda is not to eradicate. Instead, they seek to further assimilate the human race into their experiements in an attempt to chart a map to the human soul. Murdoch and the aliens' relationship is not defined by conflict, but by their common struggle to discover what constitutes identity and individuality.
Dark City's message essentially raises the question of what influences our behavior and what it is that allows us to define ourselves as individuals, rather than a mere collection of instincts and memories. On the other hand, the Matrix's message was a condemnation of humanity's tendency to incessantly consume while ignoring it's consequences, and questions of what kind of standards we applied to reality felt more like tacked on pseudo-philosophy rather than a genuine meditation on the subject.
I can certainly understand why people feel that Dark City accomplished what the Matrix attempted. In this vain, Dark City treated the human spirit as the only thing separating us from merely being slaves to our own programming, and I think it would have made the Matrix a much more interesting film if it tried to present the dichotomy between man and machine in this way, rather than defining the relationship by underlining our penchant for mindless consumption. However, I wouldn't go so far as to say that it would have worked better, considering that the Matrix was first and foremost an action film. I think that it would be more accurate to say that Dark City wasn't an example of what the Matrix attempted and failed to do, so much as it was what the Matrix should have been. This may sound like mere semantics, but the distinction is necessary because to say otherwise would be to unfairly dismiss what kind of film the Wachowskis were trying to make in favor of what some wished it was.
With that being said, I won't deny that both films redefined the genre in their own way. The Matrix was a pop culture phenomenon that directly influenced hundreds of action films and thousands more pseudo-philosophical conversations among stoners about the nature of their own realities. Although Dark City seems to draw heavily from Blade Runner (82), I think it's a unique enough entry to still be considered groundbreaking in it's own right. Both films are very satisfying on different levels, but if I was stranded on a deserted city floating in space and had to choose between the two, Dark City would win every time.
Unlike the Matrix, Dark City doesn't bear the mark of it's time mainly because it didn't operate on the same visual level. The Matrix's aesthetic was essential from a marketing standpoint, and a large part of the selling point was it's heavy use of iconography. This is not to say that Dark City does not look equally gorgeous in comparison, far from it. In fact, the shots of Dark City's visuals are a testament to how well they executed the marriage of the noir and sci-fi genres. The city casts beautifully expressionistic shadows that do a great job of punctuating it's mysterious and ominous nature.
One of the very few issues I have with Dark City is it's pacing, which moves at a break-neck tempo just south of frantic. The last time I saw Dark City was with a few friends, and they weren't quite as obviously taken with the film as I was. However, I actually started to become acutely aware of just how long it actually was right along with them. It's possible that their impatience had a residual effect on me, but Dark City's excessively economical storytelling is undeniable. Once the film straps you in, it immediately takes off without so much as a backwards glance. There's a way to tell a tight story without turning everything into an exposition-fest, and unfortunately, Dark City was victim to it's own plot.
Considering the relatively sparse plot, Dark City didn't take the time to balance out the constant exposition with many opportunities for the characters to pause and breathe in their surroundings because they were constantly on the move. This led to the tragic downplaying of the cast by forcing all of the characters to interact with the sole purpose of moving the plot along, and this is most apparent with Detective Bumstead (William Hurt), Mr. Hand (Richard O'Brien). Everyone in the cast (aside from Jennifer Connelly) was exceptional, but those two were a treat to watch and not only did they steal every single scene they were in, they did it in such a way that it only elevated the performances of those around them.
Call me an apologist, but Dark City is such a unique entry in the sci-fi/noir genre that even it's flaws only serve to contribute to what made it so endearing in the first place. I first saw it years ago at a friend's recommendation, and I've only come to love it more with each viewing. It's not hard to see how Dark City gained it's cult status, and it will always and forever hold a special place in my heart.