Monday, July 18, 2016

Dark City (1998)

Dark City – Proud to be a Hybrid
(written in 2006)

In Janet Staiger’s article, “Hybrid or Inbred: The Purity Hypothesis and Hollywood Genre History” she argues that Hollywood films have never been “pure” or easily arranged into categories nor are modern films hybrids of genres.  She hesitates to loosely call such films “hybrids” as some film scholars has done because of the suggestion that a hybrid as it’s own genre is invalid.  There is an inherent need for a reliable categorization for films, but Staiger argues that all modern films fit into multiple genres and categories. In her argument, she disagrees that movies such as sci-fi noir are hybrids.  She instead suggests, derogatorily, that the term “inbred” would be a better way to define these films, since they sample prior film conventions to create new ones.  I disagree and believe using the term “hybrid film” is a useful and helpful term in defining contemporary genres.  A recent example of this is found in Alex Proyas’ 1998 film Dark City.  This underrated film is a textbook example of how to successfully meld film noir with science fiction and validates the argument for the continued recognition of genre hybrids.

In an article by Rob Latham, he notes that “postmodernism tends to move toward an implosion of conventionally separate genres, creating multiple hybrids.”  (Latham 229) It is a rare sight in our modern times for completely conventional genre pictures to be produced.  While a discussion of genre study and theory is beyond the scope of this argument, it is worth noting that genre purity has become nothing more than a historical note in film history.  Virtually every movie borrows from earlier films or crosses conventions through two or more genres.  Laura Marks defines hybrid cinema in the following way:

The term "hybrid cinema" also implies a hybrid form, mixing documentary, fiction, personal, and experimental genres, as well as different media. By pushing the limits of any genre, hybrid cinema forces each genre to explain itself, to forgo any transparent relationship to the reality it represents, and to make evident the knowledge claims on which it is based. Hybrid cinema is in a position to do archaeology, to dig up the traces that the dominant culture, and for that matter any fixed cultural identity, would just as soon forget. One cannot simply contemplate a hybrid (or a work of hybrid cinema): one cannot help but be implicated in the power relations upon which it reflects. (Marks 8)

With Marks definition of hybrid cinema, she provides another clear explanation for the purpose of having the term.  This counters Staiger’s argument that hybrid is inaccurate or unnecessary. According to Marks, hybrid cinema allows us to push genres to every possible edge of their individual definition. We are then able to review and rethink the implications of that genre.  It also it takes us back to where we recall fears and concerns of the past that are also applicable to today’s time.  Film noir was very much reflective of the World War II paranoia that permeated society.  By forming a hybrid with science fiction, noir becomes applicable to our current times as we attempt to deal with modernist fears.  Fears such as: where is the world going?  Will it still be here for our children and our children’s children?  Will technology cause a greater sense of alienation between people?  Is the concept of a utopian society nothing more than a fantasy?  These themes are all present in the sci-fi noir hybrid genre.

When we look at the origins of film noir, we find that it is made up of many elements and is a virtual hybrid of concepts in itself.  “Film noir is a mood, a tone, a play of shadows and light and beyond all of these, a visual consideration that in its narrative structures embodies a world view.” (Tuska) Paul Schrader in his groundbreaking essay “notes on film noir,” believes there were four main causes for noir, “World War II and post-war disillusionment, post-war realism, the German influence (meaning the work of German expressionists), and the hard-boiled tradition of gangster films. (Schrader)
This is further supported by Alain Silver and James Ursini where they describe noir as a “group movement” much like Italian Neo-Realism and German Expressionism. (Silver and Ursini)  Classic film noir is considered to have ended in the early 1960s but following that time, there were films that borrowed from noir conventions and combined them with other genres.  This style was given the name of neo-noir. By its name, it harkens back to German Expressionism and Italy’s Neo-realism, two genres which greatly influenced the more popularly known genres which came along after.
In the post-classical Hollywood era, one of the most significant trends in noir crossovers involves science fiction. This post-modern sci-fi noir emergence began with Blade Runner (1982) and grew even larger in the late ‘90s with films like Twelve Monkeys (1995) and Gattaca (1997). Representations of film noir continue into the 21st century with films like Brick (2005) and even The Black Dahlia (2006), a film which seems to be little more than an exercise of the film noir genre. Dark City stands out among all of these films as yet another postmodern variation on the genre of film noir, with science fiction being a framing element to the story.

To critically study genre conventions within Dark City, we must place the film within contemporary culture where “film noir has not only made a comeback as neo-noir pastiche, but in which genre boundaries have become so permeable that noir tropes have infiltrated adjacent popular genres” (Hantke).  Many contemporary films use elements of film noir to heighten their aesthetic.  For Dark City, the noir aspect is almost a character itself within the film.  The term “Dark City” has been used to describe the look of many early gangster/mob films which were later given the label “film noir.”

The title of the films prepares you, if nothing else, for the look of the film that you about to see.
Within film noir and Dark City the city represents the horrors of the modern world.  No one is who they appear to be nor are they who they think they are. In Dark City, this is due to The Strangers switching around everyone’s identity each night.  This is a reflection of our modern times as we come to terms that we are really strangers to one another and that no one really knows anyone, much less themselves.  The control that The Strangers have over the Dark City world brings in the science fiction element.  The mechanical system that powers the Dark City world is portrayed as a big machine that lies deep underground where The Strangers dwell.  The big machine is representative of the corporate world that we live with in these modern times and controls our lives in the real world.  It also harkens to the Orwellian idea of “Big Brother” controlling the world around us.  This element of the film works well within this genre hybrid of science fiction and noir.

Throughout the film, John Murdoch, the protagonist, has reoccurring memories of Shell Beach, a place he thinks that he enjoyed spending the summers during his childhood.  Try as he might, he cannot remember how to get back there.  Eerily, everyone that he asks knows the place but cannot remember where it is either or how to find it.  On his various attempts to find Shell Beach, he hits dead ends.  In this way, the city is called into question.  Questions begin to arise in the audience as to what the city is all about.  This is foreshadowed early in the film as we are shown a circular rat maze with a rat heading deeper into the maze as opposed as heading out of it.   In our modern lives, we often feel as if we are running in circles and hitting dead ends as we make our way through the world, with no way out.  This theme is commonly found in films of noir based hybrids.

Noir commonly also features amnesia storylines where a man awakens to find he is accused of a murder that he does not recall committing.  The amnesia subplot has also become extremely popular in the last decade with successful films like Momento (2001).  This film is no exception.  Dark City begins with Murdoch, waking up in a state of amnesia and finding a dead body in his room with a bloody knife next to him.  He has no recollection of who the woman is or of a murder.  The film continues, true to the genre conventions, as Murdoch then finds himself running from the police who are pursuing him as the murderer.  This concept of amnesia within the noir genre is for an even greater purpose as it forces the audience to experience “a nagging sense that, even in our relatively untraumatized middle-class lives, something is missing and we can’t quite recall what it is.” (Rafferty) The individual identity crisis of Murdoch is symbolic of the worldwide identity questions of: Who am I really?  Why was I created?  What is my purpose?  Variations of these questions are addressed throughout hybrid genres such as sci-fi noir.

The theme also continues to resonate with audiences with a deep rooted fear that the lives we are living are nothing but illusions.  This anxiety which continues to be played out in neo-noir films, like that of Dark City is the fear that lies in the back of our mind that our lives and identities have been created for us, like those of the citizens in the film.  Everything is synthetic and artificially created around us.  This is most often attributed to our political leaders, who frequently “cultivate historical amnesia.” (Rafferty)  Our culture of consumerism, represented by “the city” also encourages amnesia as we are encouraged to believe that the next “big thing” is better and supersedes that which was created before it.  This exemplifies the sense of loss we all experience as modernity robs us from tradition.  Modernity states that everything and everyone is disposable and recyclable.  Like the constantly changing world of Dark City, our world is changed around us whether we approve of it or not.  That which is in the past is gone and future has yet to be created.  Tradition and comforts are uprooted by those that exercise control over us and there is little, if anything, that we can do about it.
Films using noir in recent times have often utilized it to reflect a specific time period in America’s past.  It seems to often portray the postwar 1950s such as in a film like L.A. Confidential (1997).  “The current versions of noir are too self-conscious to transmit the same anxieties of the original noir films. Instead, they trade on an even spookier notion: All emotions are a thing of the past, gone the way of the traditional virtues.” (Sharrett 79) This does play into the characterizations in Dark City, where the Strangers change the memories and identities nightly of the humans in the city. Everyone experiences a form of subconscious amnesia, since they cannot recall that fact that they held a different identity on the prior day.  All emotions between those characters are not truly theirs, since no one is really who they think they are, which is another feature of noir films.   In the film, the noir element is not played so much to set a time period, but more of sense of nostalgia that is played in the background to the over-riding science fiction storyline.

This amnesia also breeds paranoia and confusion which grows within Murdoch’s psyche.  The unknown elements of the city feed the paranoia and terror.  It is presented in the science fiction portion of the hybrid genre by showcasing the lack of knowledge of the world that they characters live in.  Vivian Sobchak points to three things found in science fiction films to deal with the paranoia. There is a look to magic, religion and science.  The magic is sought out to reconcile with unknown powers.  Religion is used to reconcile one’s own existence, while science is used as an empirical way to explain the unexplained.

Murdoch’s character is imparted with the same “magic” power as The Strangers have and is able to use it to defeat them.  This same magic is then used to change the Dark City world into the world that he wants.  The darkness element of noir is eliminated as the sun rises and lights up the city.  Science is portrayed in the film by Dr. Schrader (Kiefer Sutherland) who is a “human” psychiatrist who agreed to help The Strangers in exchange for not having his memory erased every night.  As the film progresses, he uses the science of The Strangers against them by empowering  Murdoch with the ability to defeat them.

Religion is featured in the film within the character of Murdoch who is portrayed as a messianic figure.  Much like that of Luke Skywalker from Star Wars (1977) or Neo in The Matrix (1999), the messianic figure is prominent in science fiction genre films.  Murdoch’s defeating of The Strangers portrays him as the savior of the Dark City citizens and hints at a “happily ever after” conclusion, but it does not wrap up all the loose ends.

Dark City concludes with an ambiguous ending, also common to the noir genre.  Much like reality, we never know how things will eventually turn out.  Murdoch manages to cause the light to shine on the city and bring in large bodies water, the moisture of which, kills off The Strangers. However, we are left with not knowing what becomes of the people there.  It is never even disclosed if the people were originally from Earth or if they were even human.  Murdoch is also able to create Shell Beach, which he had never been able to find in his prior attempts to seek it out.  The event of him creating Shell Beach again brings up the notion that reality is nothing more than what we want it to be.  Nothing is ever solved; the mystery of life, both in the movie and reality continues to draw questions.

While they may not all be historically accurate, the noir conventions of 30s and 40s American iconography portrayed in the film were never meant to be.  Both within the story and for the audience, the iconic noir representations are there to set a mood for the film as a whole.  Some of the noir conventions of the eternal 1940s in Dark City are presented as the cars on the street, the wardrobe of the people and even the appearance of an all-night automat.  The look is very reminiscent of the artwork of Edward Hopper, whose most popular work was created in the 1940s and reflects his vision of that time.  One scene in the film takes place in the automat as Murdock goes in to retrieve a lost wallet.  The harsh lighting contrasted with the darkness outside the automat, like that of Hopper’s painting Nighthawks, portrays the isolated feelings of the characters in the film.  Even when they want to eat, they are forced to get their food from the mechanical device.  Human interaction is at a minimum and even then is usually cold and unfriendly.  The seedy hotel where Murdock lives is watched over by the man at the front desk who is lit by a single lamp hanging over his head.  He reminds Murdock constantly of the rent being due in an unkind tone.  Due to the fact that the thoughts and memories are traded around each night, Murdoch is faced with interacting with different people each day who are sharing the same identity. For example, the front desk man at the hotel where Murdoch lives one day is swapped out with a different person who still knows his name and still demands the rent money.  This constant change of identities represents the impossibility of a utopian society.  No one ever really knows anyone. The Strangers are all very similar to each other in appearance and personality.  They live in a form of utopian society below the Earth, but it a cold, disaffection life they lead.  This further destroys the myth of a perfect utopian world.

The Strangers are representative of the horror genre as they seem to be part vampire, zombie and the living dead.  This is yet another genre hybrid which exists within this film and it cohabitates comfortably with sci-fi noir.  Much like the sci-fi noir hybrid, sci-fi horror is concerned with the same broad thematic territory.  It addresses the terror of the unknown, especially for Murdoch as he learns more about whom The Strangers are and what they want from him.  As the film progresses, we discover that The Strangers are some sort of alien that are using corpses for a body as a means to interact in a world with humans (or whoever the human-like people are, since it is never disclosed if they were abducted from Earth or where they come from).  Aliens are most always symbolic of those that are different from us, whether its race, gender or philosophy.  In the sci-fi horror hybrid forms, they are presented as being terrifying creatures, sometimes, like in the case of Dark City, they take on a human form to make their identity indistinguishable from the humans.  Other examples of aliens in science fiction and horror hybrid films that combine those two genres are Alien (1979), The Thing (1982) and Species (1995).

It is a challenge to find any film that does not combine multiple genre conventions.  Going back to Staiger’s article, she argues that film genre purity has never existed.  That argument is an agreeable one since every film has always utilized various concepts.  Even film noir took gangster films and utilized German Expressionistic aesthetics to create the kind of hybrid film that was later defined as noir.  However, her claims that post-Fordian Hollywood films should not be called hybrids because of the fact that genre purity has never existed is a ridiculous one.  Modern Hollywood films are virtually all hybrid films that combine genre elements to create fresh approaches to film narratives.


Dark City. 1998. New Line Cinema. DVD 1999.
Hantke, Steffen. Encapsulated Noir: Hybrid Genres and Social Mobility in Alex Proyas’ Dark City.  6 October 2006.  15 November 2006. From Scope: An Online Journal of Film Studies.

Latham, Rob (2002) Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000. Questia. 13 Dec. 2006 <>.

Rafferty, Terrence (2003-11-02). "The Last Word in Alienation: I Just Don't Remember". 13 December 2006.

Schrader, Paul (1996) Notes on Film Noir, in Alain Silver and James Ursini (eds.), Film Noir Reader. New York: Limelight Editions, pp. 53-65.

Sharrett, Christopher. "The Endurance of Film Noir." USA Today (Society for the Advancement of Education) July 1998: 79. Questia. 13 Dec. 2006 <>.

Silver, Alain, and James Ursini (1996). Film Noir Reader, vol. 1 Pompton Plains, N.J.: Limelight Editions.  pp.

Sobchack, Vivian (2004). ‘Cities on the edge of time: the urban science fiction film’, in Liquid Metal,. ed. S. Redmond, Wallflower Press, London, pp. 78–87.

Staiger, J. (1997). “Hybrid or Inbred: The Purity Hypothesis and Hollywood Genre History." Film Criticism. 22(1): 5-21.

Tuska, Jon. Dark Cinema: American Film Noir in Cultural Perspective. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.  p. vii

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