Dark City (1998) – Esoteric Analysis

Director's Cut Poster Showing the Head "Stranger" or Architect

By: Jay
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 theAlternate Film Poster 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.

9 Comments on Dark City (1998) – Esoteric Analysis

  1. Interesting stuff. I remember this movie coming out around the time of the first Matrix and being compared to it. I haven’t seen it yet but I recall hearing it has gnostic themes. You’re right, all Holly Wood seems to do is rehash the some gnostic junk.

    The names in Dark City are interesting too. Schreber is German for Scribe. That’s probably a knock at mainstream biblical religion, the film maker’s way of saying scribes followed the “god of the blind.” The name Murdoch means The Sea. This ties in nicely with the whole dream of a beach and his mystical experience at Neptune’s Kingdom, since in Neo-Platonic theology, individual souls’, separation from and return to the the Divine Mind or Platonic Absolute, was often portrayed single drops of water being reintegrated in the immensity of the Ocean. Additionally it was Neptune/Poseidon who, according to Plato, founded Atlantis, a mythical city that is important to all sorts of occult groups.

    I also noticed from imdb.com that the Strangers are called Mr. Hand, Mr. Book and Mr. Wall. The names Hand and Wall seem to call to mind the writing on the wall episode with Belshazzar in the bible. The name Book, I’m assuming, is meant to make us think of the bible itself. I guess this is their way of further beating us over the head with the fact that these guys are representative of Jehovah. The name Wall would also suggest the entrapment of souls within the “walls” of the physical universe. I also noticed this exchange between Book and Wall on imbd.

    Mr. Book: He’s becoming like us.
    Mr. Wall: So we must become like him.

    I assume they’re speaking of Murdoch after he develops his powers. If so, this is a clear reference to God’s statement in Genesis 3:22:

    Behold Adam IS BECOME AS ONE OF US, knowing good and evil: now, therefore, lest perhaps he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.

    The key difference being, of course, the statement by Book alludes to a gnostic interpretation of this passage, in which God is the bad guy and the serpent is a guru leading man to freedom.

    Hey what about Jennifer Connelly, the ultimate 1930s-1950s babe? She’s in it too right? She seems to be in a lot of gnosticy type movies or at least run in circles that connect to mystic type stuff. For instance she’s in Requiem for a Dream which was directed by Darren Aronofsky, who also wrote and directed Pi, a film about kabbalah.

    It’ll be interesting to read your thoughts on Metropolis. I still haven’t come to a definite conclusion as to whether it’s promoting an orthodox (or at least semi-orthodox) Christology or a Jacob Boehme style Christology, or some other kind of gnosticism or what. Is it pro-revolutionary or anti-revolutionary? Pro-Communist or Pro-Capitalist? Maybe it’s because I saw the incomplete version of the film. For years a significant part of the footage was lost but in 2008 old prints were rediscovered and a restored version of the film was released just 8 months ago. If you can get a copy of this new release (which is really the old original release) when you do your review it might throw further light on the subject. I believe it’s now available on DVD. It’s defiantly an interesting and influential film.

  2. Yes – good points, especially about Neptune, which I should have known, since I recently read the dialogues that mention Atlantis. In Dark City, though, Murdoch never finds a real Atlantis or paradise, but rather discovers that he creates his own paradise. There were more things I wanted to say, but the library was closing last night when I was finishing. The “tuning” aspect seems to reflect the notion of dimensions or levels of reality existing at certain “vibrations” as is found in string theory and certain occult schools (not that is is totally false, per se). What is the same old same old is Murdoch’s self-realization and attaining of his occult powers and godhood.

    I was going to mention Sutherland’s character as bare knowledge, scribe, as you point out or “science,” whereas at one point Murdoch explains to one of the Strangers that they have looked for the soul in the mind, when it was actually to be found in the heart. So Murdoch represents the embodiment of gnosis and will/power, generally characteristic of the “heart” in the Western Plotinian/Augustinian conceptions. So Murdoch is the macroprosopus because he is a kind of ubermensch, in which these disparate “powers” are united (since Schreber implants his knowledge into Murdoch at the end when Murdoch is laying down cruciform as a kind of alter-Christus).

    I noticed Mr Book and Mr Hand, but wasn’t sure what to make of it. The situation from Daniel is a great possibility! The Strangers do seem, in the gnostic view, to embody the good angels/God, but of course it is hard to say, since it’s such a warped view.

    As for Jeniffer Connelly, absolutely she is the archetype babe. My fav babe, in fact, as Ive often mentioned. And, yes, she is very often in just such a role. I read an interview with her where she went on at length about her penchant for Sartre and existentialism, which is of course gnostic in many respects, but I wonder if there isn’t some deeper gnosis at work, given the fact that both of us have wondered about the seeming patterns that different actors show in different roles, like Nic Cage or Johnny Depp, for instance.

  3. Interesting. The fact that he says the soul is in the heart, not the mind reminds me of the the moral of Lang’s Metropolis. The mediator between the Hand and the Head must be the Heart. Ruled over by the distant and godlike manger Fredersen (the Head), the working class of the city live in virtual bondage, until Fredersen’s son, for the love of a beautiful woman Maria, comes down and lives and works amongst the poor, eventually reconciling Head to Hand by serving as the Heart. On the one hand a critique of alienation between workers and management but on the other hand an examination of the alienation between Man and God, bridged only by Christ. As I said, with Metropolis the question I always end up asking myself, is whether Lang was presenting a gnostic or orthodox Christ? If the evil Maria Robot, who is compared to the Beast of Revelations, is read as a critique of gnostic eros, then Lang might have actually been presenting proper Christianity as an alternative to gnosticism and Marxism. I image Dark City is less ambiguous in its support of gnosticism.

  4. I enjoyed your review, except the last sentence, for man is god.

  5. drjazzguitar // January 30, 2014 at 4:36 am // Reply

    All this specific references leave me quite dizzy and impressed that such literary and philosophical scholarship can be found. Certainly I do not have the encyclopedic access that your minds have regarding other works. But if an opinion can be had without such a background, my sense was simply that when the Stranger’s controlled all aspects of the world it was a dark, contrived place where no one knew who they were. When John frees the world of that oppressive control, there is a light and freedom and uncertainty for the future. We know who we are because we become our choices. Unlike you guys, I did not see the Director’s cut, but he does not say ‘the heart’ in my version, although he does say that ‘in here’ pointing to the head was the wrong place and one might assume he speaks of the heart, but he could have meant the soul. It seems that the place he does not point to refers to a place beyond logic and beyond the concreteness of memory… the places that knows and informs logic and informs our decisions. The brain fortunately is not limited to those linear tools, such as language, which have been historically useful for practical solutions to complex situations. Networks, like a highly connected set of processors, can assess the complexity of the world and translate those results as autonomic signals that drive our hearts and breathing and perspiration in ways that let us know our bodies are prepared to respond to a situation which we may not even be conscious of or describe logically. One of the concerns I have with your interpretations, which may be my misunderstanding, is the suggestion that there may be deliberate references being made, when a good deal may be unconscious and simply triggered by similarities in the authors memories and in yours. It is very interesting to ponder these relationships, but I think the most important issue is whether there is a message to help me understand my place in the world and to be more conscious. In a contrived overly controlled world, there is nothing to wake up to or to keep us attentive and in the moment. There is nothing to keep us attentive to our hearts which are informing us (albeit indirectly) that something is about to happen and we need to feel it and pay attention. The strangers have no hearts and can even stop time. Humans who are capable of the divine (of love) are only so because they are free to love in a world of uncertainty they embrace.

  6. I was watching this movie again today and realized the composer also uses Holst’s Mars as well, and very effectively.

  7. Something really clicked when we read this review. We are firmly in the “everything is about Illuminati MKULTRA mind control programming” camp, and you’ve made us realize just how similar Gnostic philosophy is to the process of dissociation. We’ve been debating whether that’s what gave the Gnostics the idea in the first place. We present the following story for your analysis:

    Once upon a time, there was a naiive young child. She was reasonably imaginative, like most children, but because she lacked nothing in her ordinary life, her flights of fancy remained fleeting diversions…until something went terribly wrong. Some unspeakable thing wounded her so deeply that she tore off several aspects of her consciousness and cast them, burdened with all her pain and negativity, into one of her imaginary worlds. The imagined world became their reality, tangible and persistent, yet still an illusion compared to their native world. For many years, the pieces of the child’s mind lived in this state, with one occupying the home-world as if nothing were amiss, and the rest struggling to get along inside the synthetic microcosm, mostly oblivious to their lost home. (If the formative wounds involved ritual abuse, a mixed battalion of demons and demonized child-shards was explicitly assigned to keep the lower world’s population docile and oblivious.) Occasionally, however, someone did notice that there was a world up above, and tried to ascend into the body to lead her own life–but the individual who was accustomed to holding the body became frightened by the loss of control and fought back. The stakes became even higher when some realized that occupying the body gave them access to unparalleled abilities to modify the interior world with a mere thought. Eventually, the conflict outgrew all subtlety, and the lot of them sought the secret wisdom of the almighty psychiatrist. With his patient guidance, each and every shard of the original child (now an adult) learned that they were facets of the same person, and thus co-heirs of the upper life. Forever changed by this knowledge, they left the lower world behind and merged into a single super-consciousness, who lived happily ever after in True Reality.

    At least, that’s the classical version of the D.I.D. narrative. We’ve seen that some parts are literally true, although we’ve seen no grounds try to apply Gnostic philosophy to any other situations. And many of us disagree with the way the classical story ends: We see meaning and value in our inner world and in our individuality. We believe in a single, eternally unparalleled God, or at least 30+ of us do, so we feel that our creative powers over the inner world do not make us deities, they are just a sign that we were lovingly created in the image of a real Deity.

    If there is a relationship between Gnosticism and dissociation, the slogan “As above, so below” takes on a new meaning. Maybe they literally believe that we are all dissociative alters of God. That would be kind of silly; they have no evidence. But I guess realism takes a backseat to what people want to believe, especially when there are promises of power involved.

    I’m sorry to ramble. It’s just a really strange new angle to look at this stuff.

  8. Here’s Alex Proyas’s new film https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0VDveYwbuU. Looks like he is dispensing with whatever minute amount of subtlety his past films have displayed, altogether.

  9. Even when he turns Dark City into Shell Beach, he is still in a prison. The only difference is he is drunk on the illusion that he is God and can create the reality he wants will bring him peace. He may be free of the Strangers, but he is still a slave to his own ignorance and desire. Working towards total liberation instead of “Godhood/Augmenter of worlds” is thus a worthy pursuit. A wise man, by the name of Gautama the Buddha, gave some valuable insight into how we can do just that. It’s called the Noble Eightfold Path.

    You don’t see a lot of Buddhist on forums like this. Have you noticed that? Maybe because the wise one’s are well aware of the futility of trying to convince others to see the truth and the suffering that results from the desire to do so. I guess I’ve still got some work to do.

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