By Ezra Stead
Dark City, Australia / USA, 1998
Directed by Alex Proyas
The Matrix, USA / Australia, 1999
Written and Directed by The Wachowski Brothers
The more things change, the more they stay the same. A clichÃ©, admittedly, but the truth of the aphorism cannot be denied. In the two films we are about to examine, humanity teeters on the brink of disaster in two seemingly disparate space-time continua. The similarities between these two films, however, vastly outweigh the differences. In Alex Proyas’s Dark City (1998), we are presented with a haunting vision of a seemingly familiar world that has actually been fabricated by a group of inhuman creatures that prey on human memories. Sound familiar? It should. One of the most popular films of 1999, Larry and Andy Wachowski’s The Matrix, has a very similar premise, and the similarities extend to specific characters and plot points.
There are differences, of course; mostly financial ones. The Matrix is less opaque, more readily accessible to masses of moviegoers. Its slick, computer-generated special effects are more pleasant to view â€“ if somewhat less visceral â€“ than Dark City‘s gritty, film noir atmosphere of doom and entrapment. Likewise, Matrix‘s villains are ostensibly less sinister (at least, in their guise as government agents) than City‘s bald, pale, trenchcoat-clad â€œStrangers.â€ Beneath the disguises, though (the Strangers use human corpses as vessels), the true villains in both films are pretty much the same: slimy, tentacled alien monsters that die when their vessels are destroyed.Â
As Dark City opens, we are told of the Strangers via the voice-over narration of Dr. Daniel P. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), a human who admits from the very start to being a betrayer of his own race. This character is not dissimilar to The Matrix‘s Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), but Cypher’s betrayal of the human race is a climax of sorts, rather than an exposition. After City‘s opening credits, we are introduced â€“ though not immediately by name â€“ to John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), a man who awakens to find himself naked in the bathtub of an apartment in which lies a murdered prostitute. Just as Matrix‘s Neo (Keanu Reeves) is ignorant of the true nature of his â€œreality,â€ so Murdoch finds himself with only fragments of memories, and no idea who or where he is.
The two protagonists are soon given some information, though, in scenes whose dialogue could easily be swapped without much noticeable difference. In both films, the protagonist receives a phone call; in The Matrix, Neo is informed by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) that â€œtheyâ€ are coming for him, just as â€œtheyâ€ (the Agents) come around the corner to find him. The similarity is almost too obvious to point out, as Dark City‘s Murdoch is informed by Dr. Schreber that â€œtheyâ€ (the Strangers) are coming for him. Before the Strangers come through the elevator to pursue him, however, Murdoch is at least informed that there is a reason for his lack of memory. Neo, on the other hand, is handicapped by the very presence of his false memories, which prevent him from making his escape as guided by Morpheus. While Murdoch escapes to a small diner, where he finds his wallet â€“ the extent of his tangible identity thus far â€“ Neo is caught by the Agents and taken to an interrogation room.
The next turning point in each film involves a choice the protagonist must make in his search for the truth. Murdoch goes home with a prostitute named May (Melissa George) in order to see if he really has it inside him to kill (he doesn’t) before going to the address on his driver’s license; there he meets his wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly), who tells him of Dr. Schreber, as well as filling in some gaps in his false memories. Similarly, in The Matrix, Neo is led to Morpheus by the film’s female lead, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss); however, his search for answers is much quicker than Murdoch’s, due to visual information plugged directly into his brain. The truth that Neo learns is this, paraphrased but with some of my favorite turns of phrase intact: what he believes to be the present day of 1999 is actually somewhere in the distant future, around the 30th century (the exact year is unknown). After Man created artificial intelligence, it turned on us, sparking a massive war between Man and Machine. Man decided to scorch the sky, reasoning that without an energy source as abundant as the sun, the machines would perish. Ironically, the machines then discovered that all the energy they needed was produced inside human bodies. Humans were then plugged into the Matrix, a virtual reality world that, to the human mind, seems completely real.Â
In Dark City, Murdoch gradually learns that the Strangers are a race of ancient beings who find that their civilization is in decline. Soon they will die. Seeking a cure for their own mortality, the Strangers abandon their own world and come to Earth. Here they construct a city, built like a giant circular maze, that is perpetually shrouded in darkness. Each night at midnight, they stop all human movement within the city by will alone. Every human in the city simultaneously falls asleep. The Strangers, with the help of Dr. Schreber, then alter the memories of the city’s inhabitants, giving them completely new identities from week to week, or even day to day. The object of these experiments is exemplified in the character of John Murdoch, in whom Dr. Schreber is about to implant the memories of a serial killer when Murdoch suddenly wakes up. The Strangers wish to determine if a man, given the memories of a killer, will continue on that same path; their hypothesis is that the key to the human soul lies in our memories.
Here we come to one major point of divergence between the two films. While Dark City is a tale of ancient evil, â€œas old as Time itself,â€ from the infinite reaches of space, The Matrix speaks to us of original sin. By extinguishing the sun and, indeed, by creating artificial intelligence in the first place, humanity has sealed its own fate. We have, in fact, created the monsters that now enslave us, a not-too-subtle social metaphor. Their mind-control device, the Matrix itself, is modeled after our late-20th century society; as Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) explains to Morpheus, â€œthe first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world â€¦ that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.â€ In Dark City, however, the Strangers practically created us; they stole our memories and took us to a city that they created for the purposes of their experiments. Because it was deemed useful, Dr. Schreber was allowed to keep his scientific knowledge, but forced to erase the rest of his own memories, which we see in perhaps the film’s most haunting scene.
None of the characters in Dark City remembers who or where they were before the Strangers came to Earth. In fact, almost no one knows of the Strangers’ existence; those who do are usually erased. Detective Eddie Walenski (Colin Friels) glimpses the truth and is driven mad by it, ultimately committing suicide as a way to get out. In a way, The Matrix‘s Cypher is a combination of this character and Dr. Schreber except that, while Walenski wants to get out of the world that has been pulled over his eyes, Cypher wants to get back in and, while Dr. Schreber is forced to erase his own memories of the real world, Cypher makes a deal with Agent Smith so that this will be done for him. Also, Dr. Schreber is openly a traitor to the human race from the start, but changes his ways when he glimpses Murdoch’s power; in other words, Schreber is a believer, while Cypher is not. Walenski in Dark City is also similar to The Matrix‘s Oracle (Gloria Foster), in that they both see the truth but are not major parts of the action.
It seems I have digressed into character study, while the point I am now trying to make is an ideological one. Dark City opens with darkness and the words: â€œIn the beginning, there was nothing.â€ The darkness is now spattered with stars and the voice of Dr. Schreber continues: â€œThen came the Strangers.â€ With this opening, we are instantly reminded of the biblical book of Genesis. But the fact that there are many of them instead of one all-powerful being, the fact that they came from another dimension and that, once here, the knowledge of their existence generally drives men either to insanity or to an early grave, all give the impression that these are much older gods than the one espoused by the Christian faith. These gods, if gods they be, bear more resemblance to the ancient ones described in the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft.
The Matrix, on the other hand, has a more Christian outlook. While City‘s John Murdoch has the power of the Strangers, he is never referred to as â€œthe One,â€ or any other of Christ’s many names, as Neo is in The Matrix. Likewise, the significance of Trinity’s name is obvious. Cypher is the film’s version of Judas Iscariot, and it could be argued that God is personified in the character of the Oracle. Agent Smith, then, represents Satan, with Agents Brown and Jones (Paul Goddard and Robert Taylor, respectively) acting as lesser imps. Morpheus symbolizes Moses, bringing his people to freedom on his ship, the Nebuchadnezzar, ironically named after a Biblical king who conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and sent the Jews into exile in Babylon.
Beyond the ideological differences, The Matrix feels more modern; it plays almost like a video game, which is fitting since that’s basically what our so-called world is in the film. Dark City is more like a 1940s noir film with intense occult trappings, which is also fitting, since it is a world constructed by an ancient race who disguise themselves with costumes borrowed from the grave. Even the weapons used in each film reflect this dichotomy: The Matrix is full of big, high-tech guns and endless loads of shells, while in Dark City not one gun is ever fired. The Strangers opt instead for stylish knives and weird, alien devices of pain, although the only weapon they really need is their telekinetic power, which, much to their chagrin, is shared by Murdoch.
Here, again, there is convergence between the two films. In The Matrix, Neo is â€œthe Oneâ€ because of his ability to alter physical reality within the Matrix. A similar power, called â€œtuningâ€ in Dark City, is utilized by the Strangers; it is also the power that separates Murdoch from his fellow enslaved humans. When Dr. Schreber discovers this power, he gives Murdoch an injection containing the fragments of memories Murdoch recognizes as his own, supplemented with the information he needs to defeat the Strangers. This same device is used frequently in The Matrix; it is the source of Neo’s training.
Both films come to a very similar conclusion: humanity cannot be understood by the outsiders, due to the irrationalities of emotion. This conclusion is voiced in Dark City when Murdoch tells Mr. Hand (played by Richard O’ Brien, an actor best known for being the creator of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, in which he also plays Riff Raff), â€œYou wanted to find out what it is that makes us human.â€ He points to his head. â€œWell, you’re not going to find it here.â€ Luckily, Proyas, along with fellow screenwriters Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer, chose not to be so corny as to have Murdoch correct Mr. Hand by placing his own hand over his heart. The Matrix, however, lets a little more sentimentality creep into its otherwise exciting conclusion; like a scene from a Disney fairy tale, Trinity awakens Neo from apparent death with a proclamation of her faith and love for him and a soulful kiss, with literal sparks flying in the background, no less. While this is in synch with the film’s theme of human emotion triumphing over mechanical knowledge, it feels a bit forced compared to Dark City‘s more unified, epic and honestly human conclusion (which also does not lend itself so well to the sequels that eventually came from The Matrix).
However, not to let the tone and content here lead the reader astray, I should add that I greatly admire both films; The Matrix is easily one of the best action films ever made. My purpose here is to make more people aware of another great, lesser-known film that came out a year earlier. I also do not wish to insinuate that the Wachowski Brothers ripped Dark City off; it is quite possible that they have never seen the film to this day, though I will leave the rumors that The Matrix and James Cameron’s Terminator films were all stolen from the writings of Sophia Stewart to further speculation, as Dark City was never mentioned in any of the legal proceedings surrounding that. I merely found it interesting to note the vast similarities between these two fascinating films. If you see them both and compare notes, I think youâ€™ll agree. If you’d like further convincing, I recommend googling â€œdark city matrixâ€ and reading other sources on the subject; I am far from the only writer to notice these similarities, but I wrote all of the preceding entirely from my own interpretations of the films â€“ no lawsuits, please!
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor forÂ MoviesIDidnâ€™tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features.Â A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.