Dark City and the ambiguous ending.

Dark City and the ambiguous ending. August 30, 2008

I finally got around to watching the “director’s cut” of Dark City (1998; my article) a few days ago, and as is often the case with these things, I liked some of the changes and didn’t care all that much for some of the other changes. Maybe some day I’ll make a “viewer’s cut”, just for me, that keeps some of the old bits but includes some of the new bits.

The “director’s cut” is close enough to the previous version that I don’t feel a need to add much to what I have said about the film before. But one thing does jump out at me, namely the way the film’s portrayal of its protagonist, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), has become just a little more ambivalent.

In the original version of the film, Murdoch is basically a sort of everyman who wakes up with no memories of his past but discovers that he has a superpower of sorts, namely the ability to re-shape the physical world with nothing more than the power of his mind. Over the course of the film, Murdoch discovers that the world he lives in is a complete fake, created by similarly superpowered aliens who kidnapped a bunch of human beings some time ago and began playing with their memories and identities in order to see if there was anything consistent about these people — anything resembling a soul — that could not be reduced to the simple programming of their brains. By the end of the film, Murdoch has defeated the aliens, and he uses his superpower — which none of the other human beings seem to have — to re-create the world as he sees fit.

Now, in one sense, this would seem to be a happy ending. Murdoch has been trapped in a dark, dreary city for the entirety of the film, wishing that he could visit a bright and cheery place called Shell Beach — and at the end of the film, Murdoch finally gets to go there. However, the reason he gets to go there is because he has created Shell Beach for himself. And lingering over the “happy ending” is the question of whether Murdoch can ever truly be happy in a world that, apart from the personalities of its citizens, offers him no surprises, no otherness, so long as it remains a projection of his own wishes and desires. (Consider, too, that Shell Beach was an idea planted in Murdoch’s mind by the aliens; Murdoch may have conquered the aliens physically, by banishing them from his world, but their influence lingers on other levels.)

To put this another way, Murdoch is a man with the powers of a god, and while the film ends on a happy note — with Murdoch finally mastering his godlike powers — it does not take too much imagination to conceive of a time when these powers might go to his head and drive him mad, or make him insufferable, to say the least.

These are thoughts I have always entertained about the film, ever since I first saw it in the theatre over ten years ago. But it wasn’t until I saw the “director’s cut” this week that I appreciated the extent to which director Alex Proyas is, himself, aware of the potential downside of a man like Murdoch having these powers.

First, at the climax of the film, after Murdoch has vanquished the aliens, the “director’s cut” removes a line of dialogue. In the original version of the film, Murdoch says, “I’m gonna fix things,” and then he talks about the powers he has, and his intention to use them. In the new version, he simply talks about the powers he has, and his intention to use them; the film no longer cues us to see Murdoch’s re-creation of the world as an essentially positive thing — though of course, given how that re-creation is depicted, most of us will see it that way anyway.

Second, and more importantly, at an earlier point in the story, as Murdoch and Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt) are taking Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) to the place where they hope to find Shell Beach, Murdoch grills Schreber for information, and at one point he leans over the seat in Bumstead’s car and uses his superpower to inflict physical pain on Schreber. In essence, Murdoch tortures Schreber, however briefly, and his action brings a look of shock to Bumstead’s face. Thus the film explicitly raises the possibility that Murdoch might abuse his powers.

So the “director’s cut” of this film is a little more complicated, morally, than the version which has been out there for the past ten years. And while I might quibble with some of the other changes that Proyas has made to the film, I have to say I rather like this one — if for no other reason than it seems to confirm my more ambiguous reading of the movie’s climax.

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