How do you know that you have been alive before this very moment? Your memories? What if perhaps there was some means of inserting memories into your mind, of forging some identity which never belonged to you in the first place? What if your whole life, who you are, and this entire world is nothing more than a game? This is the central theme of Dark City, a sci-fi spin on film noir plays out like a schizophrenic nightmare. John Murdoch is a man who, by conventional standards, would be labelled an amnesiac serial killer. In his search for his lost memory, he ends up unwinding a universe where no one is who they think they are and we are all the victims of a terrible experiment. This great conspiracy poses questions about the nature of human consciousness, identity, and freedom.
I really enjoyed the ambiance of this film. Like I said earlier, this movie has certain film noir elements, so the wardrobe, hair architecture, and vehicles highly resemble the 1950s, but the world of the alien experimenters who manipulate human memory and identity is more like a whimsical Edward Scissorhands-esque environment. Both environments, however, are very dark and sinister-looking. The special effects that were used in this film to show the actual bodies of the aliens themselves (who use the dead as their 'vessels') and the telekinetic action were pretty believable, and considering this film was made in 1998, that is quite a feat.
The soundtrack for this film mostly takes place when John Murdoch's wife, Emma, is performing as a lounge singer in a bar. I guess the reason this was done was because music was seldom just put into films without explanation in the 1950s, so this was supposed to keep the vintage feel authentic. She has a very nice voice and is very seductive, but the lounge scenes feel very thrown in. This part might be added to explain how Emma gets by financially while her husband roams the streets like a madman looking for his memories, or perhaps her discomfort in front of the audience is supposed to show how this ordeal has torn her apart and left her an anxious shell of her usual self. Still, the singing segments really didn't belong.
The more enjoyable scene with Emma were mostly about her relationship with John (surprise!). The main idea behind their interactions was that even though Emma and John had been programmed through memory to love one another, they chose to hold onto that love even after knowing it was artificially imposed. These scenes made me wonder if their love had some special quality beyond their imposed identities or if perhaps it was just the result of every human being needing someone they can trust and turn to for support. When John was wandering the streets trying to find who he was, I often wondered if there was anyone he could turn to from the cold brutality of the world around him, and Emma was one of those people who could help him in his madness.
Even though Emma was very loyal, I think Dr. Schreber was by far the best developed character. At first his stammering, cowardly demeanor makes you wonder if he can be trusted or if he will turn on John, exposing him to the alien experimenters, but in the end we come to realize he was the one who was the bravest and most wanted humanity to triumph, even though in the end he continues to be a lonely, pathetic creature. He fought for the dignity of humanity with no reward for himself.
Detective Walenski was also very interesting as he performed a function in the story somewhat similar to the medieval fool by leaving reason behind by going mad but still speaking the truth; he is one of the first characters to realize there is something wrong happening in the city. He tells the investigators hunting John down and John about his dark visions about the city before killing himself. I wish we could have spent more time focusing on him, since he was such an interesting, tragic character, but he was only there to help John realize there is more to the city than there seems.
One thing that I found very difficult to suspend belief on was the aliens and their telekinetic abilities. During fight scenes and chase scenes, there were many problems the aliens faced that could have been easily solved through telekinesis. I supposed if they used their powers to the best of their abilities, John would never stand a chance in defeating them and saving Dark City, but the writers should have tried to make that a bit more accurate.
Overall, I highly recommend this movie. It has great ambience, action, romance, and a plot that will really get you thinking. It's a great movie to share with any sci-fi fan or to curl up and enjoy by yourself on a quiet night in.