The tale of the times

Dark City is a movie by Alex Proyas made back in the late 1990’s. His movies since have been disappointing, but Dark City was creative and different. I watched it again on the weekend and it struck me that it has thematic similarities to a couple of other big movies made around that time – The Truman Show and The Matrix. It’s not uncommon that we get a spate of similar movies being made. Trends seem to sweep through Hollywood. This year it’s volcanoes, last year it was space travel, next year is earthquakes, and so on.

These movies are different in that the plots are dissimilar and the moods vary. What they have in common are themes of manipulation, surveillance, and questions of authentic life experience.

For those who don’t know [spoiler alert] Dark City is a noirish tale set in an eternally dark world that has an edge of the fantastic. Unbeknownst to them the citizens of this city are science experiments, surveilled and experimented upon by a strange society of beings searching for the unique elements that make up mankind. Each night the city is rearranged. Buildings pop up where the night before there was nothing; other buildings retract. The citizens themselves go to sleep through this when the strange men come out and rearrange their history and identity. The man who goes to sleep as Stan the baker wakes up as John the policeman, and as far as he’s concerned he’s always been John, and always a copper.

Naturally – for this is a movie – there’s a renegade character who wakes up to this (literally) – John Murdoch. He is mystified naturally, before investigating further and discovering the dark secret, before ultimately tearing the façade down and, in a manner of speaking, liberating the citizens to a more authentic and pleasurable existence. The sun rises, and the story ends.

Compare this to The Matrix. Neo is living his conventional life before by accident he discovers its secret and is jolted into another reality. Like John Murdoch he comes to battle the strange controlling faction who use humankind as a power source for their world. In reality each citizen exists within a pod, but to enable control they are fed a simulated reality. This becomes one of the key concepts of the franchise – the blue pill represents the dumb, but superficial contentedness of the dreamlife; but take the red pill and choose to live life authentically, warts and all. Set aside the sci-fi rendering and it’s a choice for all of us every day (and a theme of my own writing): live easy, or live true.

Then there’s The Truman Show. This is not as outlandish as others, nor does it have an overt sci fi setting. It hasn’t got a hard edge either – this is The Matrix made into It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s a great film though, and has similar themes – Truman himself a kind of science experiment, and exploited and manipulated on this occasion for entertainment value. He is the unwitting object of the most popular show on TV, oblivious to how every day of his life is broadcast to millions. All the while he dreams of another life, of a woman he once had a fleeting encounter with, and of faraway Fiji, a place he yearns to visit but can never get to. Ultimately the truth dawns upon him to, and like the others he rebels against the life dictated to him.

What interests me is what the genesis for this small genre of movies might be? How is it that a clump of disparate, but similarly themed movies came to be made around the same time? What does it say about that time, or that generation? And why is it that as a theme it seems to have fallen out of favour – or has it?

These are the things that fascinate me. It’s one of the reason I love the popular arts, because they tell the tale of our times. They reflect back to us what we thought and what we are.

*Another excellent example is the clutch of conspiracy/paranoia movies that came out in the early seventies in the wake of Watergate (The Conversation, The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, The Domino Principle, Capricorn One, etc). Suddenly everything we believed was undermined and open to question. Nothing could be trusted, and movies told the tale.

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