Existentialism in Dark City and The Matrix
Spoiler Warning: In this article I discuss the plot of both The Matrix and Dark City. In order to examine these films in depth, I must discuss major spoilers. If you haven’t seen either one of these films you’d be doing yourself a favor by seeing them first. They’re wonderful and I wouldn’t want to spoil either of them.
It’s hard for me to think about The Matrix without thinking of Dark City, and it’s not just because they’re both about a man that develops a superhuman talent for mentally controlling sophisticated machines that enslave humanity… although that is a very, very good reason. It’s because they both came out at the end of the millennium, used many of the same sets, and identically capitalized on a very specific brand of Y2K paranoia—one that went beyond simple existentialist ponderings or religious Armageddon hysteria. One where filmmakers didn’t shy away from trying to blow your mind by turning the “all is not as it seems” plotline on its head. Both introduce us to extremely well-developed artificial worlds. Creating a whole artificial world is not easy. It has to be alien enough to be unique while being familiar enough to be believable, and that’s a very thin tightrope. The best ones will have you imagining yourself living in this world and fancying how well you’d do in it. In this respect, I think the crown goes to Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, but both Alex Proyas and The Wachowski Brothers aren’t half bad either at designing one that touches a profound nerve. When we stay in line and follow the status quo, are we robbed of our identity? What can be worse to angst-filled youth? Here, only one thing can foil the plans of these evil agents (or evil strangers), and that’s the idea that within each of us lies a unique, unchangeable, and acutely resourceful soul that yearns to be free.
In Dark City, we are introduced to John Murdoch—a man who no more knows his identity than we do. Another man calls him, frantic, telling him only that his memory has been erased, that people are coming for him, and he must flee. Following John are three guys in trench coats. What’s with the dudes in the trench coats? Whoever they are, we don’t like them. John runs as we all would under these circumstances because everyone can relate to simple instinctual paranoia, and his tormentors can be anybody because he has no memories. Throughout the film he slowly pieces together his identity… only to realize later that it’s all fake, including his name. Like the artificial city he lives in, his memories have been concocted in some lab. But can identity, real identity be manufactured? That’s the real question: are we simply just a sum of our experiences? Now that he has the memories of John Murdoch, is he John Murdoch? Strangers—alien beings dependent on humans to continue their existence—set to answer this question, but we all know what the answer will be, don’t we?
In The Matrix, we start with a tapped phone call. What can be a more nerve-wracking and paranoid way to begin a movie? Then we meet Trinity. Trinity is a badass. But here’s the golden rule of badassery: there’s always a bigger badass. After watching Trinity effortlessly spank a roomful of cops it’s equally impressive to watch her turn tail and run from three guys in black suits. What’s with the guys in the black suits? We don’t know yet, but she escapes to find her quarry. That’s an excessively paranoid everyman named Thomas Anderson who eventually finds out, big shock, that everything he has ever known has been faked including the very world he lives in and his name. A machine has generated everything including sensory experiences and memories to keep people cooperating with a growing malevolence.
Plotwise, The Matrix and Dark City are virtually identical, they just belong to different genres. Dark City is film noir—taking its cues from 40s detective yarns, though with unmistakable science fiction elements. It also gives a heavy nod to 1920s German expressionist films, most notably Metropolis. The Matrix is a cyberpunk movie which combines the hellish, techno-nightmare realms of Phillip K. Dick with a more dire, apocalyptic vision of William Gibson’s sprawl. If that last line was gibberish, you’d be doing yourself a service by checking out A Scanner Darkly. That’s where you’ll find true existentialist paranoia. If you prefer reading to film for this kind of thing, try Neuromancer or Ubik. That is, at least until these books are inevitably filmed. Anyway, the protagonist of Dark City tries to harness the soul of John Murdoch, while Thomas Anderson of The Matrix harnesses his net-hacker avatar—Neo. As different as these two may seem, both are mental achievements. They are existentialist quests to grasp an identity they have fashioned for themselves—triumphing in their human spirit—and taking control of their own destinies. To do this, they must defeat “the man” who are, of course, invariably white males.
As Dark City progresses, John Murdoch becomes more and more skilled at taking control of a reality-warping machine, and thus, can literally affect his environment and face the villains—in this case dying aliens trying to tap into the human spirit in order to survive. The Matrix takes this idea a step further by making Neo’s environment entirely false—a computer simulation. The villains are part of this reality and are themselves computer programs. Though it is never explained why Neo can exert control over every aspect of this simulated environment better than the programs other than some vague chatter about “being bound by their laws in ways humans aren’t.” But that explanation is entirely unnecessary anyway. Science fiction fans are used to suspending their disbelief and allowing any givens a story presents without question, which is a good thing. Otherwise you could never have, say, a time machine in a story without explaining how it works… which is impossible since time machines don’t exist. So sci-fi gets along just fine with mumbo-jumbo like Back to the Future’s “flex-capacitor”—the unexplained device which that movie tells us “makes time travel possible”. We don’t ask why, we just go along with it.
Much as I love Dark City, and I do like it more than The Matrix, I always thought the ending could have been better. John Murdoch finally gets control of the reality-warping machine in a way that is magnificently intense and suspenseful. The battle he has with the strangers is not. It almost seems as if they didn’t know how to present the battle to the audience. What we get are amorphous blobs of light erupting from the heads of John Murdoch and the head alien. The blobs cause havok on the environment and grow in intensity until the villains and their evil instillations are destroyed. For all the build-up we got leading to that moment it seemed a bit anti-climactic. There had to have been a better way to make these moments more exciting. I mean, it’s all described in mental metaphors, right? So the battle could really have looked like anything. Let’s say instead of standing with their hands at their sides projecting blobs of light, for example, they attacked each other with kung fu. Then the metaphor for one person attacking another mentally is satisfied while finding an excellent way to present it to an audience. Then all you need is a way to quickly teach the protagonist kung fu and you’re set.
In this respect, The Matrix solved the problems of Dark City while picking an equally sinister environment, equally sinister villains, and a more explosive kung fu fighting finale. The Matrix, unfortunately, was a trilogy. Matrix Reloaded, like many sequel movies which are required to act as an action-filled distraction before we’re given the proper conclusion, is largely bereft of plot. The superior third film was filled with touching moments of sadness, sacrifice, and triumph that people had already duly tuned out after enduring the 2003 Matrix glut (two films, a tie-in video game, and the Animatrix, a tie-in cartoon movie). Getting back to the point of the series, Matrix Revolutions contained a more heady existentialist theme best summed up by a line from Bane (possessed by Agent Smith): If I’m not me, than who am I? But many people had already believed The Matrix had lost its way. The reasoning is simple: The Matrix sequels had no blueprint. Had Dark City been three movies, I believe its reworked form as The Matrix would have been quite exciting, indeed. However, that thrilling twinge you feel from good, existentialist, paranoid cinema can be experienced without watching a Matrix movie. Those wanting more can ask themselves these questions:
How do I define my reality? If it were different from another’s reality, how would I know? Would that other person even exist, from my perspective? Where did my “perspective” come from, anyway? Is it created by my environment or by the choices I’ve made? How can I find out who I really am? And when I’m soul-searching… who’s conducting the search?
Article by James Scotto-Lavino