Amnesiacs Anonymous

John Murdoch has a problem. He just woke up in an old, decrepit hotel suite — the sort where the shadows seem to be painted on the walls — to find blood on his forehead and a murdered prostitute beside his bed. The police are on their way, and a mysterious group of bald men, raspy-voiced and pale as ghosts, are after him too. Even worse, Murdoch has no memories; he only knows his name from the ID in his wallet. He might, indeed, be guilty of this murder. Then again, he might not.

So begins Dark City, the latest gothic fantasy from former music-video director Alex Proyas. His last film, The Crow, was a bloodthirsty comic-book adaptation in which a man returned from the dead to get revenge for the murder of himself and his fiancĂ©e. The Crow looked good, but it didn’t have much to say. With Dark City, based on a story he wrote, Proyas ups the style quotient and shoots for something more significant, plugging into current debates on the nature of the mind and soul. Murdoch (played by Rufus Sewell) discovers that the bald men are members of a race of aliens known as the Strangers, who have mastered the ability to control, create, and reshape the physical world through the power of their minds. But this power offers them little satisfaction because they have, so we are told, no individuality, no freedom, and no hope of eternal life. They have gained the world, you might say, but they have no soul to lose.

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Artificial Life

Human beings, as C. S. Lewis once put it, are amphibious creatures. We are both creations and creators; we follow instincts and hungers we cannot control, one of which is the impulse to make things in our image just as God made us in his. And so we feel a kinship with nature, as well as a pride of sorts in the things we create, yet they fill us with anxiety too.

Filmmaker Errol Morris, in a small but impressive body of work, has spent the past two decades exploring these issues, and his latest film, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, is perhaps his most intricate and stimulating yet. In the film, Morris considers the worlds of animals and robots and asks how different we are from either of them. Are we, as computer scientist Marvin Minsky has said, simply machines made of meat?

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Review: Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (dir. Errol Morris, 1997)

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control proves, once again, that Errol Morris is one of the most fascinating filmmakers working today.

His newest documentary does not have the celebrity appeal of his Stephen Hawking bio A Brief History of Time, nor will it make headlines like The Thin Blue Line, which singlehandedly overturned an innocent man’s murder conviction. But it does represent a bold artistic step forward for Morris, and it explores crucial existential themes with a thoughtfulness and perceptiveness unlike anything Morris has done since his first film, Gates of Heaven.

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Interview: Errol Morris (Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, 1997)

Date: November 12, 1997
Place: Cambridge, MA (him) and Surrey, BC (me)

I conducted this phone interview as part of my research for an article I wrote for Books & Culture. I have liked the films of Errol Morris ever since I saw The Thin Blue Line in 1989, and the film which occasioned this article, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, was easily my favorite film of 1997. I had heard that Morris lets his interviewees ramble without interruption, the better to see what they reveal about themselves, so I tried a similar approach.

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