Released in 1998, Alex Proyas’ Dark City was received with general apathy by audiences and unenthusiastic reviews by critics, save for a few that praised the film as a bold visionary achievement. Released the next year, the Wachowski’s The Matrix tackled many of the same issues as Proyas’ film: the nature of reality and finding oneself within an artificial world. Yet, The Matrix went on to become a phenomenon that spawned two sequels, video games, and a fervent following determined to mine every inch of its space for meaning, while Dark City was relegated to the somewhat less lofty perch of ‘cult classic’. Why did one film connect with audiences while the other fell flat? To be sure, the innovative action sequences in The Matrix were a large part of the film’s appeal, but both at a thematic and narrative level it shares a number of traits with Proyas’ film from the previous year. Both films star actors with laid-back on screen personas, Keanu Reeves and Rufus Sewell, and rely on them to solve the mystery of their own predicaments, but they also act as audience surrogates, reacting to events in the manner one would expect viewers to react. Both films feature quests to determine the nature of reality in a confined space, the managerial hierarchies of which are both hinted at in early scenes with unfortunate encounters with the governing bodies. Both Neo and Murdoch, the protagonist of Dark City, are literally awoken in liquid at the beginning of their quest for knowledge. In terms of action sequences, the laws of physics are abandoned on numerous occasions, with the aid of state-of-the-art digital effects, but only with justification from the narrative,. Finally, at a philosophical level, both films literalize the ideas put forth by Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation, creating states in which the real has been put into question, and an elaborate simulation of reality has been instituted. This is where the films part the most drastically, and could perhaps explain the great financial disparity between the two films. As Baudrillard writes, “something has disappeared” , and what The Matrix ultimately determines is that the ‘real’ can be recovered from the simulation, that humans can return to a life lived directly, absent from the distortion brought upon by exposure to hyperreality; that the traditional, self-contained humanist subjects in Neo’s posse, through the power of their minds alone, can infiltrate and bring down the dense, interconnected network of the simulation. In short, it is an optimistic, almost saccharine take on Baudrillardian ideas.
Dark City, however, presents the inverse view, that not only can one never return to the ‘real’, but it questions whether there ever was a distinction to be made between ‘real’ and ‘unreal.’ It achieves this by narratively swapping the philosophical allegiances of the characters and pitting them against one-another. In The Matrix, the self-contained human subjects are pitted against the evil interconnected machines, a thread which is further emphasized in the sequels when Neo becomes less connected even to his fellow humans and is allowed to live only to take on the greater threat to the machines, another machine that has dared to speak ‘I’. In Dark City, although the aliens are networked through a hive-mind, it is their determination to acquire ‘that which makes us human’, i.e. the essential human essence, which ultimately proves to be their downfall, while the subject-less, networked human population prevails. Ironically, the film pits aliens-as-humanists against the humans-as-post-humanists in a kind of metaphysical battle royal, played out over 100 minutes in the guise of a science fiction/noir/action film. Throughout the proceedings, arguments are made for and against each competing idea, concluding with the notion that neither philosophy on its own is quite right for humanity, but in fact a hybrid of the two will create the ideal situation. However, this being the pessimistic spin on Baudrillard, the ideal situation is not a ‘return to the real’, and rather than the attempting to destroy the simulation, as in The Matrix, the task is instead to gain control of the simulation, to recognize the artifice and channel it into new and productive arenas. All is an illusion, but it is our illusion.
Dark City is the story of John Murdoch (Sewell), a middle-aged man who opens the film by waking up in the bathtub of a dimly lit hotel room. Confused and disoriented, he stumbles across the wet floor, only to discover the shattered remains of a strange, Victorian-era appearing syringe on the floor. Immediately outside the bathroom he finds the corpse of a naked prostitute with spiral shapes carved into her flesh. He receives a phone call from a mysterious man named Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), who is apparently aware of Murdoch’s predicament. Schreber warns Murdoch that ‘they’ are coming and he must flee, they being the aliens of the film, the pale, black coat wearing Strangers. They want Murdoch for something, but Schreber does not explain immediately why. Later, the film introduces Emma (Jennifer Connelly), Murdoch’s supposed wife, and Detective Bumstead (William Hurt), the new lead on serial killer case whose suspect kills prostitutes and carves spirals into their skin. The film begins in the guise of an amnesia story as Murdoch, awaking with only fragments of memories, attempts to piece together what his life used to be before he forgot everything. Pursued by both Bumstead and the Strangers, Murdoch survives several close calls by accidentally performing the Strangers’ telekinetic ability called ‘tuning’, which manipulates physical objects within the city. Over the course of the narrative, it is slowly revealed that the Strangers designed the city based on the collective memories of its inhabitants, who were brought there to be experimented upon. The Strangers are dying and they seek to learn the essence of humanity (souls), believing our longevity as a species can somehow be extracted and utilized to keep their species from extinction. Each night at midnight (in the city it is always night), the Strangers tune the city, rendering all the citizens unconscious (save Murdoch and Schreber), modifying buildings and memories, hoping to stumble upon the soul, like playing the game Boggle but with reality itself. Murdoch discovers this, and with the help of Dr. Schreber he overcomes the aliens’ tuning machines, but only by fully embracing his ability to tune by tapping into the Strangers’ collective consciousness. Murdoch destroys the Strangers and the machines they used to fabricate memories. He brings the sun up over the city, creating the first daylight in the film, and fashion’s a location from his own fabricated memory, a resort city named Shell Beach. Standing on a pier overlooking an ocean he has created, he encounters Anna, who is actually his former wife Emma with a new memory. She does not recognize him, but the two agree to travel to Shell Beach together. When asked his name, Murdoch responds that his name is ‘John Murdoch’, openly adopting the label created for him by the aliens, whose memory he now possesses.
The Strangers, for all their humanist understanding of the human condition, seem to come by the strand of philosophy almost begrudgingly, but quite appropriately when one considers their predicament. They occupy a shared space and shared memories; communicating through telepathy, their congealed consciousness is a hive-mind that governs their affairs. Yet, unlike The Borg in Star Trek they do not profess the superiority of their race and venture across the galaxy assimilating others. Rather, their collectivism has become their very undoing, much like a computer program can be reproduced ad infinitum, creating a baffling array of complexity and population; it can still be brought to destruction by a single foreign element. As natural selection has formulated over billions of years, diversity is paramount for most species’ survival. Share genetics that are overly similar, and a species becomes easy prey for predators and microbes. Evidently, wherever the Strangers hail from they dominated for a long while, but some foreign element must have forced them to confront their inadequacy as a species, so they were forced to scour the galaxy in search of one without their fatal flaw.
Although they appear human-like in the film, The Strangers are actually small parasitic creatures reminiscent of jellyfish with circular jaws in their globular center of mass. At a few moments in the film, a Stranger’s vessel is destroyed and the parasite inside attempts to leap from the damaged cranium like a driver fleeing a wrecked automobile. For them, the human body is ‘meat’, to use Gibson’s term, a vessel they drive to maneuver around the city built for its human inhabitants. They are the literal incarnations of the mind/body duality common in much humanist thought, so it us of little surprise they establish their search for ‘what makes us human’ on the premise that humanity lies somewhere in the mind. And yet, they seem ignorant of the role bodies play in defining a species. They fear sunlight and water, two elements commonly used to symbolize life in Western literature. Visually, they recall Murnau’s Nosferatu: they are pale and thin, wearing long, black coats and keeping the city in perpetual night. These obvious flaws in physical composition seem of little import to the Strangers, who apparently hail from a region of the universe with little light or moisture. Perhaps their long life as a species before encountering a flaw has led them to a specific arrogance regarding their physicality, forcing them to instead assume that what makes a human is his free will, or his soul. It cannot be his inferior primate body, but something intangible, something essential that must be discovered by experiment.
The experiment itself seems almost destined to fail, for in attempting to isolate the essential human element, they perform many tasks which would strike philosophers as entirely post-human. Each night key elements of the city are modified: buildings change, citizen’s memories are altered, all hoping to lead to the common nugget amongst it all. In terms of scientific procedure, it seems quite logical. The Stranger’s knowledge of humans is culled entirely from the collective memories of the captured citizens when the city was first constructed. Based on those memories, the Stranger’s fabricated a mishmash of a human world, mixing eras of architecture, interior design, aesthetics, and every other avenue of human creation all into one convoluted metropolis. Indeed, the city often times resembles the one from Lang’s film, both architecturally and in terms of class structure: the topside residents remain blissfully unaware of the residents below the surface, the ones who actually maintain the city. But, in a reversal on the original, it is the subterranean population, the Strangers, that maintain control. The Strangers have constructed a human world from the memories of tangible, real objects in an attempt to locate something intangible and indefinable. Their quest for the soul, in scientific terms, is attempted by creating a world of variables that are constantly shifting, with the hopes that a control, a common link, will emerge. The Strangers in many ways mimic the curator of the The Great Family of Man exhibit, which Roland Barthes observed “…at the outset directed to this ambiguous myth of the human ‘community’, which serves as an alibi to a large part of our humanism.”  As Barthes and others have noted, attempts to locate the ‘human’ element common to us all is bound to failure because it is premised upon a notion of togetherness, that despite the ever-changing variables to our race, class, gender, geographical location, what-have-you that there can be some common element: some song that everyone knows, some joke that everyone gets. Dark City illustrates the folly of humanist thought on this matter by the abject failure of the Stranger’s plan, not only in execution but in inception. Since they embody the humanist philosophy, they are ignorant to the ways in which the body constructs identity. An identity forged in a Latino body can be lifted and placed in a Chinese body without consequence. What is the body but a vessel for mobility? The population of the city appears to be culled from a fairly Western group of citizens: the architecture from their memories is akin to Chicago or New York, they all speak English, drive Western cars, and so forth. Yet, even in a city so lacking in diversity the Strangers are unable to pinpoint the human essence.
From the humans’ perspective, the Strangers attempt to locate their center is a bit of a cosmic joke, for Dark City argues that what they are constantly switching, manipulating, and recontextualizing is not the simple bits of information that make up humanity, but that humanity is nothing more than those bits of information. It is only the Stranger’s misunderstanding of this fact that leads the citizens of the city to begin to question that anything is amiss at all. Since Murdoch has awakened during the memory imprinting process prematurely, he only retains fragments of what was to be his new personality. As such, he is privy to the artificial nature of everything in his head. Curious, he begins questioning other citizens about their past, and when they cannot remember the exact details they begin to feel troubled, confused. For example, everyone seems to have heard of Shell Beach, but no one knows quite how to get there. Yet, as Delueze and Guattari note: “a connection with another machine is always established, along a traverse path, so that one machine interrupts the current of the other or ‘sees’ its own current interrupted.” Given time, citizens would begin to make new connections, form new memories. This process cannot be interrupted, even by tuning, “even if everything stops dead for a moment, everything freezes in place – and the whole process will begin all over again.”  For Deleuze, the need for humans to network not only interpersonally, but within their own physicality and psyche, is a human trait. The Stranger’s fail because they have forgotten how to be mechanical. They have machines, yes, but their psychic gifts have allowed them to bypass the process of production, they can simply will objects into existence without consciously assembling each component part. This ignorance extends to their understanding of humans as something which can be boiled down to a single essence, overlooking the complex symphony of machines that constitutes human existence from the smallest cell to the greatest metropolis. In fact, the remixed, mashed-up nature of the Stranger’s city plays right into what humans have always done. As Steven Shaviro writes (taking a cue from Barthes): “they sample, they appropriate, they hybridize, they distort, they remix and recombine, the already-existing detritus of culture.” 
And yet, this process of deconstructing and reconstructing of material appears lost on the Strangers, who did not assemble the city in a logical way, the same way a DJ would assemble a track from specifically chosen samples and loops. Indeed, one of the visual motifs of the film is the spiral. Bumstead’s killer carves it into his victims, it appears in coffee cups, rat mazes, and in mad scrawls across a police officer’s wall. Meant to symbolize the complex maze the Stranger’s have constructed, it also symbolizes a seemingly complex system that is actually one continuous, connected line. The Stranger’s have seen the larger spiral of humanity, but are unable to reduce it to the single line, to break it down to simpler functions. In one sequence, the films shows conveyor belts filled with bric-a-brac like suitcases, eyeglasses, and the like. Each tuning session, they are given instructions by the hive mind on which human objects (a wallet, a broom, etc) to bring back for study, hoping they will reveal secrets to the soul. The Strangers are only capable of viewing humans at a macro level, like viewing the spiral from afar. They seemingly cannot begin at one end and trace the line around curves and bends, rendering the shape less complex than it first appeared. The logical A to B to C construction of the human system is a mystery to them; they merely see the entire alphabet as one self-contained, complex code.
Why, then, if humans are continuously adapting and producing, does the city give such dread and confusion? The answer is twofold, and both are again tied to the Stranger’s misunderstanding of human perception. The first is the speed at which they change the city, which several writers have noted creates a sense of unease in urban residents. As Deleuze noted, the process of making connections will begin again once interrupted, but it takes time. Unfortunately, the Strangers predicament prevents them from moving more slowly, which is problematic. Paul Virillio writes, echoing the sentiments of many that feel the speed of the postmodern era creates a sense of unease, “It is speed as the nature of dromological progress that ruins progress.”  Given this, it is little wonder that human aesthetics is so keenly focused on patterns, symmetry, and immediate familiarity. A pop song on the radio will instantly become familiar, many can begin reciting the chorus before the song has been played through once. The Stranger’s city reflects none of these tendencies: it is a pattern-less hodgepodge of recognizable traits strewn about with no discernable connection, then immediately, repeatedly reshuffled.
Second is the Stranger’s ignorance of how humans construct temporality in their memories. For example, Detective Bumstead cherishes the memory of his mother’s accordion, given to him as a gift, yet he is troubled by his ignorance of why it was a gift, or when. The original memory of the accordion-gift, whomever’s it was, contained all these details linearly, but the Stranger’s have broken up the details without considering the effects. It goes back to the spiral. They have lifted out segments of the line without considering what is immediately before or after, and then reassembled them. Obviously, the new lines connect together at awkward angles, or do not connect at all. These gaps in continuity are troublesome for the humans, but it also turns the population of the city into a literal incarnation of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome, with “no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.” Similar to articulating the folly of humanist self-containment, so too does Dark City articulate fears about the opposite end of the spectrum, a centerless, interconnected series of middle grounds without firm footing on any kind of self. To bridge the gap between the two, the film proposes one should become a metaphysical irony. Post-humanism often mentions hybrids, connectedness, and intermixing, and what the film illustrates with Murdoch’s final transformation is that a complete person must take the post-humanist concept of a hybrid identity and apply it to the philosophy of the self as well, to become a hybrid humanist and post-humanist.
Near the end of the film, Murdoch is strapped to a rack (which appropriately positions its user in a Vitruvian Man pose), about to be farmed for the Stranger’s benefit. They believe his ability to tune holds the secret for their survival, as it displays the first successful hybridization of the two species. When human memories are injected into a Stranger, they reject it and are killed. However, perhaps they can alter their vessel bodies to be more like Murdoch’s, in theory saving their race. In a bit of subterfuge, the syringe Dr. Schreber (who is the go-between for humans and Strangers and the only one previously knowledgeable or their intentions) implants into Murdoch’s head is the collective consciousness of the Stranger’s hive mind, along with knowledge of their machinery that tunes the city. Murdoch breaks free, destroys the Strangers, and saves the people. Now in control of the tuning machines, he spins the giant city/spaceship towards the sun to create the first day, and also creates an ocean around the perimeter, with a pier overlooking the new the view. He encounters Anna, who was his wife but has since had her personality altered. After some banter, the two agree to travel to Shell Beach together, which Murdoch has materialized from his implanted memory. What this sequence sarcastically articulates is that humans are indeed merely constructions of their memories, indicated by Murdoch’s willingness to satisfy his urge he knows full well is artificial. However, his embrace of his false identity and past articulate the human need to create a contained self, even if it is entirely constructed from other pieces. To return finally to the film’s pessimistic view on Baudrillard, there can be no return to the real. The citizens of the city are trapped on a floating spaceship with no knowledge of how to return to Earth, yet with Murdoch’s abilities they can fashion the city to a more pleasurable place than Earth ever was. What Dark City argues, finally, is that if all is simulacrum, it is much easier to modify. Or, to continue Baudriallard’s metaphor, it is much easier to redraw the map than reform the terrain.
 Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. In Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster. Stanford University Press, 1998. (116)
 Barthes, Roland, The Great Family of Man from Mythologies. 1957: (100).
 Deleuze and Guattari, Anit-Oedipus, 1972: (6, 7).
 Shaviro, Steven, Connected: Or What It Means To Live In The Network Society, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003: (59).
 Paul Virilio, The aesthetics of disappearance (New York: Semiotext(e), 1980), 45, quoted in Marc Hanes, “ Paul Virilio and the articulation of post-reality,” Human Studies no. 19 (1996): 186.