Dark City

dark city Dark City, Alex Proyas’s 1998 follow-up to his legendary The Crow, is an ambitious, overfull classic in its own right. I had not seen it since it was a new release on VHS, and wondered about how well it would hold up twenty years on. It did not disappoint.

Dark City remains gorgeously noir, infused with cyberpunk and steampunk elements as well as touches of horror and romance. Although its inspirations are often obvious, it twists them together into an ambitious homage that provided its own inspiration to later films.

“I feel like I’m living out someone else’s nightmare”

The story moves at a fast pace, opening in the middle of a mystery and immediately taking a series of sharp, strange turns. The only difficulty I have with it is a too-sentimental conclusion.

John Murdoch wakes up in an unfamiliar apartment with no memory of who he is or how he got there. He doesn’t know the murdered woman he stumbles over, or who the people chasing him are. With the help of a mysterious psychiatrist, Murdoch begins to piece together what has happened to him.

He discovers that the world is run by the Strangers, alien creatures who inhabit dead humans and psychically control the city and everyone in it. The Strangers reconfigure the physical world every night–and the population, as well. People are changed out for each other, their memories stolen and reassigned, their social roles and relationships altered. It is all a grand experiment. The Strangers want to understand what it is to be human.

But part of the experiment has gone wrong, and now Murdoch has the same psychic powers as the Strangers.

“The city is ours. We made it”

Dark CityProyas’s highly stylized vision is a wonder to behold. The effects are familiar now because they have been used in many films since (most notably The Matrix, which even filmed on some of the sets used in Dark City, and Inception–I’d even say Doctor Strange felt its influence). But they are still effective, and carry the story along rather than overwhelming it.

Beside the special-effect wonders of a city in motion through frangible time and space, more traditional techniques are just as vital to the film’s style. This is where the impact of film noir on Proyas’s work truly shows. Lighting is used to great dramatic effect, with fragments of jewel tones standing out sharply from the dull, dark world, mimicking the bright fragments of memory the characters try to hold on to. Light is constantly framed and limited by swallowing darkness. The smoky nightclub, the shadowy pool, the bright but dingy automat all contribute to the interplay between the seen and unseen.

“A cure for their own mortality.”

Dark CityWith the exception of Rufus Sewell’s John Murdoch and Colin Friels’s Detective Walenski, the performances are all also highly stylized in a way that highlights the unreality of the situation.

Murdoch awakens in confusion and panic, while Walenski slowly comes to his realization–but their actions and reactions make sense as they discover the instability of the world and their memories of it,

Kiefer Sutherland’s Doctor Schreber already knows what is going on, and he is played with a strange, strained, out of breath speech pattern that manages to convey the moral agony of the man. Jennifer Connelly’s Emma is acted entirely at a remove, as if her very real passions were being felt from a distance. William Hurt’s Inspector Bumstead shares Emma’s distant affect, with the undercurrent of knowing there is more to his life but unable to remember it.

But the Strangers are the most stylized of all. Visually, the alien hosts are constructed from a multitude of cultural references, from Nosferatu to Bat Boy, with a dash of the dying, unhelmeted Darth Vader for good measure. Their physical sameness reinforces the idea of the insectile hive mind driving them.

“The only place home exists is in your head”

dark cityDark City won both the Saturn and Bram Stoker Awards in 1998, and was nominated for the Hugo. But then it sort of slipped away from wider recognition. It barely earned back its production cost, but the film’s lack of box-office success belies its resonance. While hardly the first film to present a world where reality is an illusion, Dark City did it with an emotional center that still connects.

That much, I remembered.

 

Strange Days's cybernoir mood
Strange Days’s cybernoir mood

Strange Days is an often-overlooked bit of 1995 cyberpunk written and produced by James Cameron (of Terminator, Aliens, and Avatar fame) and directed by Kathryn Bigelow (of Point Break and Zero Dark Thirty). As with many things Cameron it is overlong and somewhat bloated, but there is still a beautifully filmed, compelling story beneath the weight.

Strange Days was nominated for five Saturn Awards, winning two—Angela Bassett’s as Best Actress and Kathryn Bigelow’s as Best Director. Because of this film, Bigelow was the first woman to win the Saturn’s directing award. But no one wanted to see this movie when it was released—it made only $8 million, at a cost of $42 million. However, it’s the kind of film that is hard to shake off once you’ve seen it, which is why I’m here to tell you about it now.

***

Cyber and noir inhabit the same, discarded spaces, but with different technology, and Strange Days has a classic set-up. There are crooked cops and decent criminals, hookers with hearts of gold and fine, upstanding two-timers, corruption, double and triple crosses, and a hard-boiled love story all wrapped up in millennial paranoia. The scenes are dark and artfully grim, full of steam and neon and rain and a population that keeps to the edges of society.

Lenny
Lenny

The coming Millennium looms over the action, all of which happens on New Year’s Eve, 1999. But this isn’t about the shadow of technological collapse—this is driven by the specter of racial tensions stretched from the flash point to the breaking point.

The main characters are a tightly connected group. Our antihero, Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), is a former cop who has fallen into the world of squids—illegal electronic neural nets that can record experiences straight from the wearer’s brain. (Oddly enough, they look like facehuggers.) Squids are the ultimate virtual reality because they can give the user “a piece of somebody’s life…you’re doing it, you’re feeling it,” and because of that power they have created a different kind of junkie. Lenny is both a dealer and a user, endlessly replaying self-made clips of his ex-girlfriend, Faith.

Faith and Philo
Faith and Philo

Faith (Juliette Lewis) is an ex-prostitute trying to become a star, who has moved on to someone who can further her ambitions. Philo Gant (Michael Wincott) is that someone–Faith’s current lover, powerful musical manager/promoter, squid-head, and generally nasty person with a particular problem with Lenny. Philo has all his artists followed, watched, and recorded to satisfy his increasing paranoia. Max (Tom Sizemore) is Lenny’s ex-cop buddy who Gant hires to watch Faith, and Iris (Brigitte Bako) is a hooker—an old friend of Faith, Max, and Lenny–who Gant hires to record a highly political rapper he represents.

And trying to remain clean in this tangled mess is Lornette “Mace” Mason (Angela Bassett), a chauffer/bodyguard with a deep history as Lenny’s friend and protector. She is Lenny’s moral anchor in a very slippery world.

The story is as twisted as any forties’ crime drama. It starts in earnest with the execution-style murder of a prominent rapper and activist, and the threat of retaliation and race riots to usher in the year 2000. Then Iris is killed, but not before she comes to Lenny for help and to warn Faith of a shared danger. The murderer uses Lenny’s squid addiction like a scalpel, hurting Lenny with a trail of minidisc recordings of worse and worse crimes, all of it designed to set Lenny up as the fall guy and quite literally stab him in the back.

***

Mace with a squid
Mace with a squid

The virtual reality voyeurism in Strange Days comes from a technology “developed for the feds, now it’s gone black market”. The slang it inspires is vivid and believable: jack-in, wire-trip, wire-heads, squid-heads, ‘trodes and decks and clips. And blackjacks—snuff clips, where a truly sick wire-head can experience the actual death of the person making the recording through the victim’s eyes. Blackjacks are a special kind of hell, and they are used liberally to provoke the essentially-decent Lenny into headlong action.

The symbolism and iconography of watching is often obvious and in-your-face, with multiple instances of mirrors and mirrored surfaces used to reinforce the idea. Faith dresses all in reflective silver. Mylar balloons are abundant. Even the character’s name, Iris, reflects the theme—especially since what Iris witnesses and records is critical to the plot.

That bluntness is one of Strange Days’s primary shortcomings. While the characters are mainly well-drawn, the traits of the good guys and bad guys are often…typical. The dialogue leans toward stilted, becoming preachy at points with Dramatic and Important Declarations. At nearly two and a half hours the film goes on a little too long, with too much running back and forth and repetition of interactions. And, surprisingly, the ending is happier than anyone has any reason to expect.

Strange Days welcomes Y2K
Strange Days welcomes Y2K

Which leads us to the other issue. Both Cameron and Bigelow are known for flashier films than Strange Days, and they frequently fail to capture the necessary grittiness of cyberpunk. The overall mood and ambience is one of an idealized criminal underside. There are docks and alleys and crummy apartments. But there is also an industrial/techno club background of raves, stage-diving and Mohawks that visually references past, present, and future styles of rebellion. Outside the clubs and parties there is fire wherever the camera turns—cars, garbage cans, Molotov cocktails thrown in the streets. It evokes a studied end of times chaos that blends smoothly into the New Year celebrations going on around the main storyline. Everyone is clean.

But even with too much polish, Strange Days gets into your head. The visuals are hypnotic, the actors glossy and beautiful. The story touches on all the major tropes of noir in comfortable and satisfying ways. And the feeling of longing and loss and recaptured happiness that the squid technology can produce is compelling, to say the least. Maybe the happy ending is warranted, after all.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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Chappie came out in March, 2015, and its trailers looked gritty and funny and sharp. Writer/director Neill Blomenkamp had expanded the concept from his 2004 short Tetra Vaal into a full length movie. But the reviews upon its release were not encouraging. It earned only 30% on Rotten Tomatoes and 41% on Metacritic. Audiences liked it more than critics did, but opinions were still roundly mixed. I wrote Chappie off as one of those movies I might watch when it got to cable. Maybe.

Then, I spotted this on Twitter from Wiliam Gibson: “Taint of Disneyfication is exclusively from Sony’s excruciatingly misguided marketing. If Chappie‘s not cyberpunk, nothing ever was.”

Chappie
Chappie

I have great respect for William Gibson. If anyone knows what is or isn’t cyberpunk, it is him, and he has been vouching for Chappie since its initial release. So, I watched it. And while I understand some of the negative critical reactions, I also fully understand why Gibson got behind it with the weight of his authority. Despite any flaws in the filmmaking, Chappie is an eloquent, moving, hopeful movie about what makes us who we are.

Chappie happens in that space which Gibson loves so well, the intersection of society’s grey economy fringe-dwellers and its ubiquitous hi-tech. Cyberpunk is defined by this crossing of paths. The rich fund the technology, the disenfranchised steal and adapt it. In keeping with that, the character of Chappie begins his days as a police robot, the apparently sole product of Tetravaal Corporation. The robot is acquired by a desperate gang of abandoned-factory dwelling outsiders and his new awareness molded to support their criminal plans.

This is the barest frame of what drives Chappie’s action. The story, though, is of much wider and deeper scope.

Chappie is portrayed engagingly through voice and motion capture by Sharlto Copley. Chappie’s maker, Deon, is played with almost adolescent intensity by Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame. The self-named Ninja and Yolandi are members of the South African rap/rave group Die Antwoord. Both are charming in their roles as marginalized criminals, and their personal styles vividly display a retro punk aesthetic. The gang is rounded out by Jose Pablo Cantillo as Yankie. He gives a surprisingly nuanced performance as a thug who learns to care about a robot.

The big-name star power is much less effective. Hugh Jackman is underutilized and underdeveloped as Vincent, a soldier-cum-engineer who carries a gun in the office and behaves in a way that should get him walked out by security. Vincent is crudely and unbelievably religious, and pathologically invested in his own creation. He has to reject the idea of a conscious, feeling Chappie in order to adhere to his own agenda and move the plot along.

Sigourney Weaver, also playing an underdeveloped character, brings her usual cool authority to Tetravaal’s CEO Michelle Bradley. Although her early scenes show some strength, Michelle’s willingness to cave into Vincent’s intense pressure is a glaring plot device and one of the weak points in the movie.

Spoilers ahead.

Set in the too-close-for-comfort near-future of 2016, Chappie is a take on artificial intelligence that focuses on emotion instead of intellect. According to his creator, Chappie is gifted with “proper, full artificial intelligence”—which, here, includes the ability to love.

The robot’s transition into awareness is like the taming of a wild thing. Chappie’s awakening is smoothed by Yolandi, a female gang member who dresses like an anarchic Rainbow Brite doll.  Yolandi is weirdly yet believably maternal toward Chappie, calming him, protecting him, advocating for him, tucking him in at night. The scenes between Chappie and Yolandi are full of sincerely-played, mutual trust and affection for each other.

It is a different relationship than Chappie has with his actual maker. Deon, an ambitious programmer for Tetravaal, passionately believes in Chappie’s personhood and fights for his acceptance as an individual. Yet there is still an element of paternalistic command in the way he interacts with the robot. The gang leader, Ninja, on the other hand, is slower to accept Chappie as anything more than a tool. Yet, with the prodding of Yolandi and laid-back third gang member Yankie, he eventually takes on the role of Dad for the young AI.

The creation of the family unit is extremely well done—often silly, never sappy or maudlin, and without any emotionally manipulative moments. It feels right. That quality is vital, because the believability of this affection is the basis of all that follows.

Dad, Mom, and Chappie
Dad, Mom, and Chappie

The evolution of the ties that bind happens against a background of disenfranchisement and its collision with conspicuous consumption. So much of Chappie’s environment is Johannesburg’s bleak cityscape—all empty, weedy lots, urban rubble, and tin-shack slums thrown against the contrast of sleek, disconnected corporate facilities and rich suburbs.

As part of that, Yolandi’s and Ninja’s real-life South African Zef style is on full display, underscoring the great divide between the wealthy and the marginal.  They cannibalize eighties culture—He-Man, Lisa Frank, mullets, armloads of watches, heavy gold chains—in a way that dovetails with the urbanized decay of the abandoned industrial sites, warehouses, and office cubicles that shape the story.

One haunting scene is set in an abandoned apartment tower emblazoned with a Vodacom logo, decaying and now colonized by a powerful gang. The courtyard is filled with rubble and the sky is far, far away past stories of crumbling balconies. It is reminiscent of the Forbidden Zone in Planet of the Apes, littered with the broken bits of normal life.

While visually effective, f rom a narrative standpoint, there are too many implausible actions taken. There is huge oversimplification of the childish political maneuvering within the company. And there are awkward plot twists that leave holes behind them—why would the gang let Deon come and go at will? How can Vincent use the security key in Tetravaal’s main office without anyone noticing? Why does Michelle cave without question when Vincent wants to put his robot into action?

Having said all that, I now ask you to ignore it. Questions like these may distract from the genuine emotional resonance of Chappie, but they cannot blunt it. Chappie is the real thing.

Because Chappie is a feeling being, the climactic battle between Vincent’s murderous military ‘bot and the gang that is Chappie’s family is heartbreaking. Yankie dies, Deon is gut-shot and will die soon, Ninja tries to sacrifice himself to draw the killing machine away, and Yolandi takes a fatal bullet to save Ninja. Chappie’s outrage at their deaths is wrenching, and his reaction stems from the emotional core of this story. This is his family. He loves them, and they love him. His rage is real, and viscerally honest. When he goes after Vincent his vengeance feels justified. We understand the drive to avenge such a loss. We feel it with him.

And so the true implication of Chappie’s “proper, full” AI is not that a machine is self-aware, or even self-interested. It is that a machine has learned to love another being, to risk and give and strive. For Chappie, love is the transcendence that makes a machine a person like us.

The hope I see in Chappie exists not because any of the characters will escape the fringe where they live—their saved consciousnesses housed in new, robotic bodies almost guarantee they won’t. The hope exists because they love each other. An unexpected sentiment for a genre as cool as cyberpunk—but who am I to argue with William Gibson?

 

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!