I hate to harp on the same old thing, but the same old thing always manifests in films, and deserves to be harped on. Often what is considered to groundbreaking and avant garde is really just the same old gnostic themes repackaged with different dressing. It seems that there is actually a lack of creativity when it comes to matters Hollywood. The Knowing was also reviewed here, an Alex Proyas film, but Dark City deserved a review as well, in my estimation, since it is particularly interesting in this regard.
Dark City presents a dream world, wherein a group of alien-like archons or angelic rulers/daemons known as the “Strangers” control manufactured city by “tuning” it every night, meaning the city is re-created and it’s rat-like inhabitants are implanted with new memories. They are able to conform physical reality by will alone (“tuning”), and one of their subjects, John Murdoch, eventually attains this ability. Immediately, we realize the basic theory of “magick” at work, which is the act of conforming reality to your will. However, the Strangers do it by telekenesis, and eventually so does John Murdoch.
“Dark City,” we discover, has perpetually been in a state of darkness – it is always night, and no one can recall when it was daytime. So we have the gnostic theme of demiurge(s) who have trapped a world in base darkness, where they lack their true godpowers. We see in the beginning a movie theater where films are playing named ‘The Evil” and “Nightmare,” cluing us into the fact that we are watching a movie that is essentially a nightmare. We see a hotel in which John Murdoch, the protagonist awakes nude in a bathtub, apparently being framed for a murder. However, this night is different, as it is Murdoch’s “awakening,” and from this point on, as he is chased by certain “Strangers,” Murdoch is able to “tune,” but this power is not yet under his control.
A cop is put on his case, Detective Bumstead, who picks up where a former cop had been working who went mad. His madness turned out to be a form of intense paranoia linked to a realization that all their reality was an illusion, and that they were the experiment of gnostic daemons. John decides he must find out about his origins, since he cannot recall his past, either. For him, this is a quest to find Shell Beach, where he grew up. The entire city is a circular spiral, it turns out, and Murdoch discovers Shell Beach did not exist, and that Dr. Schreber had been aiding the Strangers in implanting fake memories in people. Rather than interpreting this as some form of “Illuminati MKULTRA mind control programming,” which most “conspiracy” writers would do, what makes more sense is a cabalistic or Platonic notion of metempyschosis or transmigration of souls, wherein we must “remember” the state of deity from which we have come. Murdoch, Dr. Schreber tells him, has evolved to the point where he can tune reality at will. The reality in which they exist is like The Matrix, and is a giant machine that can be manipulated by telekenetic will. Similarities with the Matrix Trilogy will be apparent here.
The Strangers are conducting an experiment where they are seeking to find the soul, that thing that makes humans individuals, whereas the Strangers only possess a collective consciousness: something reminiscent of the demonic realm, if you have read enough exorcism accounts. The Strangers are, again, “aliens” that inhabit the bodies of dead humans, and hate light and water. So what we have here is pure gnosticism. The lesser creator demiurges keep men trapped in darkness and deny them their godpowers, while they rule with an iron fist and entrap men in a dreamworld, hiding from them their real origin, which is that they are destined to evolve into God.
As co-analyst Peter Parker noted in his assessment of 2001: A Space Odyssey, we see roughly the same formula he lays out at work here:
“1.)Primitive man makes evolutionary leaps by virtue of his imagination.
2.)Initially Man cannot distinguish between himself and outer nature.
3.)Through his imagination, Man creates subject/object boundaries.
4.)Man projects his own person-hood on the exterior world, creating god.
5.)This projection at first helps unify society but then metastasizes into a psychological prison.
6.)Man recognizes god to be merely his projection and “re-ingests” the projection into himself, realizing that he himself was God all along, thereby moving to the next stage in evolution.
7.)In some cases this marks a break with the subject/object distinction, destroying the notion of ego itself, allowing man to be integrated into the pantheistic “all in one”.
8.)This dialectical evolutionary process, is often symbolically represented with the union of male and female pairs.”
John Murdoch, like everyone else, is trapped in the base material world, created by the Strangers. He makes an evolutionary leap and by his power of telekenesis located in his third eye, or imagination, he “tunes” reality to fit his inner psyche, thus matching the inner and outer worlds. He projects himself onto the world, creating god, or in this case, himself as god. And in this situation, he frees man from the psychological prison created by the Strangers. Like with Starchild in 2001, John Murdoch destroys his ego when he is “imprinted” with the false memories he was originally given, but this time, Dr. Schreber has inserted himself into the memories to tell John that he is a god. John becomes, then, the macroprosopus, being formerly the microprosopus archetype that breaks the Strangers’ mold.
It is interesting that Murdoch really gets the answers to the “illusion” of his reality when he wanders into an old theme park attraction titled “Neptune’s Kingdom.” Neptune/Poseidon, of course, is the god of the waters, and the Strangers hate the water. Neptune is also the planet of the mystic in Holst’s famed symphonic piece, so Murdoch’s quest has been one that is ultimately solved by “mysticism.” Not all mysticism is bad, but you can bet when mysticism is found in a movie, there’s a penchant for gnosis. Perhaps the meaning, since Neptune is the farthest planet from the sun, is that John mystically returns to the meaning of the symbolism of the gods to find freedom from the matter-connected controlling demiurges, the Strangers.
Proyas, it should be noted, also directed The Crow and The Knowing, which Peter Parker has ably analyzed here. The theme of The Knowing, you will see, is very similar to the themes found in Dark City – a world controlled by alien/demon-like entities, a mysterious code and set of symbols that must be deconstructed to decipher that reality as we know it is an illusion, and the apocalyptic end of that world. The film also makes references to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but I’ll save that for its own analysis. Dark City is an interesting film, and is worth watching, but unfortunately, the overall message is what we see recycled so often – gnostic myth wherein man recovers the supposed truth that he is god. But man isn’t God.