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 fiancée. 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.
And so they have abducted a number of human beings and planted them in an artificial world, which the Strangers revise at will on a daily basis. (Thanks to the richly detailed art direction and a relentless soundtrack that bathes each and every second in various forms of music — orchestral, ambient, even a bit of jazz — the film itself looks and sounds completely artificial, but appropriately so.) The Strangers tinker not simply with the environment in which these humans live but with their very identities, thanks to the assistance of Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), a fidgety human accomplice who creates new memories for these human guinea pigs in his test tubes and syringes. His goal: to see what is unique about each human, to see what survives when nature and nurture are changed, to see if there is anything about the human soul that cannot be reduced to physical components. If such a thing exists, the Strangers hope to hijack it, planting their memories within it, to ensure their own survival.
Murdoch is a guinea pig who wakes up, having somehow acquired the same ability to control the physical world that the Strangers have. He unconsciously resists Schreber’s attempt to recreate his past and ends up having none at all. Thus begins his quest to find himself — a quest that brings him into contact with Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt), a taciturn detective trying to solve this and other related murders, and Emma (Jennifer Connelly), a woman who remembers — for now, at least — being Murdoch’s wife.
While Dark City draws on a wide range of influences, it is particularly reminiscent of the work of Philip K. Dick, a science fiction writer who believed that history — not the mere recording and interpretation of history but the actual historical events themselves — is constantly undergoing retroactive changes. Dick, whose stories inspired the similarly identity-challenged films Blade Runner and Total Recall, sympathized with the Gnostics, who believed that we are all spirits trapped by an evil, soulless, would-be deity, known as the demiurge, within a physical universe.
For Dick, change was a good thing: he proposed that God was slowly transforming this world from the illusions created by the demiurge into “something real.” Human beings could break free of this artificial reality — they could free their spirits and prevent themselves from turning into “DNA robots” — by acting spontaneously. Dick’s thesis seems to be what is being tested in Dark City. With no memories and new powers, perhaps Murdoch can authenticate himself through his spontaneous reactions to the events around him. But is spontaneity truly possible in a world where psychology and biology are increasingly painting a portrait of the human being that leaves no room for such acts of free will?
Debating free will is not limited to the academy; it has been creeping into the popular consciousness for quite some time. For years, pundits in the homosexuality debate have bandied about the notion that a “gay gene” determines sexual behavior; in a notorious cover story in 1994, Time magazine suggested that adultery, too, was a matter of genetic programming. The April 1998 issue of Life magazine also taps into this field, boldly declaring on its cover that our life choices are mostly determined by our DNA. Rodney Brooks, a robot scientist interviewed in Errol Morris’s fascinating and critically acclaimed documentary Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, goes even further, speculating that there may be nothing more to human intelligence than a network of neurophysiological feedback loops.
A striking example of this theme can be found in, of all things, Jerry Maguire, the Oscar-nominated feel-good movie of 1996. In the film, Tom Cruise plays a sports agent who experiences a sudden moral crisis. Leaving the exploitative talent agency behind him — a world as depersonalized and artificial, in some ways, as anything Dick or Proyas have imagined — he begins to build a new life for himself in which family and friends, people he must learn to see as his spiritual companions, matter more to him than dollars and cents.
But it is not at all obvious that Maguire will be successful in this; in a crucial scene, he all but admits to his wife (Renee Zellweger) that he cannot show her the love he knows she needs. “What do you want,” he asks, “my soul or something? What if I’m not built that way?” She replies that she, too, is not “built” for a relationship like theirs. Their marriage seems doomed. The next time we see her, she is participating in a support group for divorced women, where one divorcée posits, “The neural pathways are set, and that’s why it’s hard for people to change. That’s why behavior doesn’t change, very often.”
It is, of course, at this point that Maguire walks in the door and all is made right between himself and his wife. Whether this proverbial happy ending is convincing or not — whether it has the ring of truth or, as the more cynical among us might suggest, it merely demonstrates that, in Hollywood, narrative pathways are set — it does reflect the hope that we can be free of the elements that conspire to control us. It is, in short, a plea for grace.
Dark City, surprisingly, lacks this sort of hope. Although it extols the value of the human soul, the film ultimately exchanges the fatalism of genetics and psychology for a fatalism of the spirit. Fearful that he might, indeed, have killed the prostitute next to his bed, Murdoch meets another prostitute and follows her to her apartment. When he does not feel the urge to kill her, he decides that he is not, in fact, a murderer. Similarly, it is strongly suggested that his love for Emma, and hers for him, would have existed no matter what memories they may or may not have; their souls are simply, inevitably, drawn together.
Luckily for them, and for the audience, they do make a lovely couple. But the premise remains a sobering one, for it suggests, albeit with the best of intentions, that people are, deep down, incapable of change. There may be some truth to this — did not Paul admit, in Romans 7:14-20, that he was a slave to his fallen, sinful nature? But the hope we have in Christ is that God can, and will, rescue us from ourselves, however we happen to define that term.
Peter Chattaway writes about films for a variety of publications in Canada and the United States.
— A version of this article was first published in Books & Culture.