I have become the monster you were intended to be.
- Mr. Hand

Dark Victory

2 September 2006

SPOILER NOTICE. If you plan on one day seeing the film Dark City and you would prefer, as some people apparently do, to know absolutely nothing about it before you see it, this is the point where you should stop reading. I happen to think that the movie is fairly spoiler-proof and that knowing the basics of its plot does not in the least diminish enjoyment of it (see also: The Turn), and actually I resent having to put this warning at the beginning because it steps on my punchline in the first few paragraphs below. But people will fuss, and so here it is.

There is a movie which came out in the late 1990s where the plot could be summarized as follows:

A vast number of humans live their lives wholly unaware that they are actually living in an artificial, manipulated reality - a reality created and maintained by an external, nonhuman power whose motives, while not necessarily malicious, are also not benign. These nonhuman forces do not think like humans do, they do not understand human emotions or drives very well, and they have a vested interest in keeping the truth secret. Any humans who find out are either suppressed or are considered to be lunatics by their fellow humans.

One human, though, has an ability thought impossible: He can manipulate this artificial reality directly in a way that only the nonhumans are supposed to be able to do. One of the nonhumans takes a special interest in this ubermensch, tracking him down and becoming fascinated with his existence to a degree that is highly uncharacteristic of the nonhumans, even to the extent of developing humanlike drives of his own in the process.

Eventually a confrontation takes place between the ubermensch, who is unsure of his own status and abilities, and the nonhuman forces who correctly see this human as a threat to their entire existence. At the final moment the human realizes the true extent of his abilities and his responsibility to the species, and exercises his responsibilities in a way that, while it does not release humanity from its artificial reality, buys the time and ability to bring about a new and better regime, one where the nonhuman forces do not make the rules.

What film am I describing?

I could be describing The Matrix, which came out in 1999 and immediately spawned an enormous media buzz and a vast cultural phenomenon. Or, with equal validity, I could be describing Dark City, which came out in 1998 and sank like a stone.

We saw Dark City for the first time last night. I never saw it on a big screen because the buzz, as near as I can recall as we now creep toward a decade later, was that it wasn't especially good and I don't recall that there was much interest among my peer group in getting up a crowd to see it. This was among a particularly SF-aware crowd, the sort of crowd that seemed to be right up the alley for this sort of thing - the same group of people who eagerly all attended The Matrix - as I did - almost exactly a year later.

The similarities between the two films are astonishing. Sure, there are other films which will come to mind, notably Brazil (there was one moment which was so similar to a set piece from that film that the two of us watching looked at each other with the same thought) and the two films Jean-Pierre Jeunet made with Marc Caro, Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children. But The Matrix approaches separated-at-birth territory, right down to the small moments: Mr. Hand hissing out "Mr. Murdoch" in a way that made me lean over and deadpan "Miiister Anderson" in my best Agent Smith demeanor; Murdoch stopping Mr. Book's knife in the final confrontation in the same way Neo stops (or at least appears to slow) bullets, complete with screen ripple. The parallels just kept coming and coming.

Now, I grant we were of a mindset to see them where they were none (at least after the first few minutes of the film, when we started to feel the connection). And some of them are just coincidence, surely. But here's the thing: The Matrix was very clearly aware of its predecessor. It shot in the same places, had at least one visual effects company in common, and, if IMDb is to be believed, even reused some of Dark City's sets.

Dark City shot in late 1996 (the shot began in August 1996; IMDb does not have an end date but surely principal photography did not go longer than six months; three would be more likely). It did not release until March 1998; this may have been editing room and CGI delays. It appears to have made back its estimated $27 million budget in initial release, but not much more than that. (IMDb's estimate of The Matrix's budget at $63 million is probably low; I have heard numbers as high as eighty.)

But here's the thing: The Matrix began its March 1998-August 1998 shoot at exactly the point when Dark City was being released to very little fanfare and not a lot of business. And it's probable that The Matrix was in its script and development phase at the time that Dark City was in principal photography.

These days, Hollywood is an enormously litigious, overprotective place. Lawsuits have been filed over far less. So where was the fuss? Where were the people threatening to sue? Where were the armies of lawyers? I find it very difficult to believe that one film crew did not know what the other was doing, and I find it very difficult to believe that either film's backers would normally take well to the idea of the release of another film with the same plot within a year.

So did the Matrix people realize that Dark City was going to sink like a stone and that it was therefore worth the risk of putting out another movie with the same plot? Was it a calculated gamble? I'm not enough of a conspiracy theorist to believe Dark City was sabotaged on purpose; I am willing to believe that it was under- or mis-promoted, but not deliberately.

Why is any of this even worth woolgathering over? Simple: Dark City is the better movie of the two. The wrong movie lost.

Oh yes. I don't care if it's heresy. I'm not saying The Matrix is a bad movie, either; it's quite watchable, good fun, and leagues better than its two sequels. But:

- Dark City has a better and more original visual design, deliberately combining anachronistic elements (notably, period cars and clocks and Art Deco architecture set in an otherwise contemporary city) to reinforce the idea that we are in a time-free, artificial space;

- Dark City's CGI effects do more with less, notably the sequences where the city is rearranged every night - in general, there is less "effects for effects' sake" here and I consider that a good thing;

- Ironically, by making the plot more fairytale territory (giving us you'll-just-have-to-accept-it boogeymen, instead of trying to invent an SF justification involving massive articifial intelligences and other handwaving that is full of holes), the plot of Dark City, when taken on its own terms, makes more sense;

- And most importantly: The acting in Dark City is loads better.

Seriously. This was one of the biggest surprises to me. Rufus Sewell vs Keanu Reeves is, of course, a no-contest (a cardboard box can outact Reeves), but let's consider the other deathmatches: Jennifer Connelly, who admittedly has a narrow range, vs Carrie-Anne Moss, who has no range. Knockout. Hugo Weaving and Richard O'Brien both chew scenery well and are both tremendously entertaining to watch but O'Brien has years more experience with this sort of thing. Decision, O'Brien. Lawrence Fishburne seems to think he is overacting in a Serious Film, whereas Kiefer Sutherland knows exactly what sort of film he's overacting in. Also, Sutherland's weird vocal tics in this role are less annoying than Fishburne's. Decision, Sutherland.

Oh, and Dark City gives you a bonus round of William Hurt - one of the few parts of that film which has no exact parallel in the other.

You may not believe me. Perhaps you will believe Roger Ebert, who considered Dark City one of the best films of 1998 and later noted in his review of The Matrix:

"The Matrix" recycles the premises of "Dark City" and "Strange Days," turns up the heat and the volume, and borrows the gravity-defying choreography of Hong Kong action movies. It's fun, but it could have been more. [...]

"Jacking in" like this was a concept in "Strange Days" and has also been suggested in novels by William Gibson ("Idoru") and others. The notion that the world is an artificial construction, designed by outsiders to deceive and use humans, is straight out of "Dark City." Both of those movies, however, explored their implications as the best science fiction often does. "Dark City" was fascinated by the Strangers who had a poignant dilemma: They were dying aliens who hoped to learn from human methods of adaptation and survival.

In "Matrix," on the other hand, there aren't flesh-and-blood creatures behind the illusion - only a computer program that can think, and learn. The Agents function primarily as opponents in a high-stakes computer game. The movie offers no clear explanation of why the Matrix-making program went to all that trouble. Of course, for a program, running is its own reward - but an intelligent program might bring terrifying logic to its decisions.

Both "Dark City" and "Strange Days" offered intriguing motivations for villainy. "Matrix" is more like a superhero comic book in which the fate of the world comes down to a titanic fist-fight between the designated representatives of good and evil.

Dark City surprised me. Our collective impression, when we'd finished watching the film, is that we had been cheated by bad promotion and/or bad buzz: We both wished we had seen it in a theatre in 1998.

That doesn't mean I'm sorry I saw The Matrix in a theatre in 1999. But my impression of the latter would definitely have been different had I seen the former - and on the whole the latter would have come out the worse for the comparison.

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