The amnesiac hero is a staple of noir fiction for obvious reasons, it makes for a great narrative hook to draw readers and viewers into a story with a protagonist who by definition knows as little about what’s going on as the audience does. The trope pops up all over the place in the history of noir thrillers, even Alfred Hitchcock used it in Spellbound, and you can see a particularly prominent example of the trope in Christopher Nolan’s Memento. One particularly clever twist on the amnesiac gumshoe is found in Alex Proyas’s 1998 sci-fi mystery Dark City, which starts out with Rufus Sewell as a typical memory-free hero, waking up in a bathtub near a gruesomely murdered corpse. But where in a typical mystery story he would gradually regain his memories and unlock the mystery of the murder, Dark City is in a sense about an entire city of noir amnesiacs -- only most of them don’t know their memories aren’t really their own.

The aesthetic line between classic noir and futuristic science-fiction was already well established by the time Dark City was made. Opinions likely differ on whether Proyas’s film would qualify as part of the “tech noir” canon, but it does feel to me like its own strange animal even after more than 20 years of hindsight. If Dark City is indeed tech noir, it’s unusually heavy on the noir, and if you see the movie without the studio-mandated prologue of the theatrical version it’s just possible to think you’re watching a conventional period-set crime movie, albeit an extremely visually stylized one.

If you were casting a 1940s noir in 1998, you could do far, far worse than the cast of Dark City. Sewell’s John Murdoch is a perfect blend of hapless dupe and superhuman messiah, and the story’s dogged detective Frank Bumstead is played by William Hurt, whose noir bonafides were already established almost 20 years earlier in Body Heat. Jennifer Connelly as John’s estranged wife (or IS she?) Emma also looks like she stepped out of a time warp half a century earlier, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone quite like Richard O’Brien in a Monogram or Warner Brothers picture from the postwar era. Kiefer Sutherland, on the other hand, is clearly embodying the story’s Peter Lorre role, an amusing choice for fans of the actor’s work on the series 24.

The antagonists of Dark City, an endangered alien hive mind performing memory experiments on the human population, are known as The Strangers, and they go by cool-sounding mysterious noun surnames, like “Mr. Book,” “Mr. Sleep,” and “Mr. Hand,” the Stranger played by O’Brien. The Strangers have immense power but no individual minds of their own, which drives them to obsession over the existence of the human soul. In order to try and isolate what makes a human human, they use their alien technology to mix and match the memories of the city’s inhabitants. The basic idea is: if you were to take someone’s memories and implant them into someone else, would they then become that person? Or is there a greater element to a person’s identity that goes beyond memory and experience, an immutable soul that can’t be transferred into another body no matter what alien technologies might do?

There’s a new Matrix film coming out in less than three months as I write this, but it’s almost always been impossible to watch Dark City without thinking about The Matrix and its much more commercially successful stylized cyberpunk noir head trip. Dark City came out just a year before The Matrix and I don’t think it’s been established whether it had any real influence on the latter film, but there are some definite parallels between them, including a scene where Sutherland’s Dr. Daniel Schreber guides Murdoch away from The Strangers via an unexpected telephone call, much like Morpheus does for Neo in the famous office sequence of The Matrix. The Strangers’ proclivity for enigmatic last names is somewhat reminiscent of the Agents Smith and Jones seen in The Matrix, and Murdoch’s ability to telekinetically “Tune” reality around him (something that only Strangers are supposed to be able to do) is a clear rhyme with Neo’s reality-warping superpowers within the Matrix. There are even reports out there that both Dark City and The Matrix both used some of the same sets on the Fox Studios lot in Sydney, Australia, one of which comes directly from outspoken Dark City champion Roger Ebert, who included the film in his Great Movies essay series and even recorded a commentary track for the DVD.

Just as it’s impossible to watch Dark City without thinking of The Matrix, it’s impossible to talk about the film without mentioning Ebert, who still has to rank as the most enthusiastic Dark City fan of all time. Anyone who tries to write about or discuss this movie is just following in his footsteps, given that he did so much to rescue it from undeserved obscurity.

I’m a big fan of when familiar story tropes get new, science-fictional explanations, and Dark City’s unnamed city where the sun never seems to come up gets a great one. In what serves as the film’s last great trick, it’s revealed that the city the entire movie takes place in is actually a giant superstructure built by The Strangers and floating through space. This might just be my overactive imagination talking, but it’s a concept I think of whenever I see an old black-and-white crime movie, particularly if it has the same cheap sets I’ve seen dozens of times before, I picture them as subjects of the Dark City experimental project, living out their noir nightmare plots as the script dictates, which isn’t really so different from having artificial memories implanted by alien technology, if you think about it. And I also can’t watch an episode of Peter Gunn without thinking it takes place in a Dark City-like environment -- which would explain why the geography of Gunn’s city seems so uncertain, and why certain actors pop up playing multiple characters throughout the series.

The influences on Dark City range from the obvious (Metropolis, with its vast underground machinery, is one particularly prominent touchstone), to the esoteric (Sutherland’s character is named after Daniel Paul Schreber, author of the early 20th century text Memoirs of My Nervous Illness), and could probably fill an essay’s worth of space all on their own. If I ever got to have a conversation with Alex Proyas, I’d ask him if his idea for Dark City was at all influenced by The Night Mayor, the 1989 science-fiction novel by Kim Newman, another story that transmutes the archetypes and imagery of film noir into a new, science-fiction conceit.

Dark City (written by Proyas along with Lem Dobbs and David Goyer!) was Proyas’s followup to The Crow, and even though it was a box office disappointment it served as a springboard to bigger films for the next couple decades, including sci-fi blockbuster vehicles for Will Smith (I Robot) and Nic Cage (Knowing). He also went on to make the truly bizarre Gods of Egypt, but he hasn’t yet been able to match the visual, thematic, and atmospheric inspiration of Dark City, which might be why he released a short film this year set in the world of the film. He’s also alluded to a series based in some way on Dark City being in development, and it’s easy to imagine its combination of big sci-fi hooks and film noir atmosphere playing well in a big, expensive streaming miniseries -- although I’m skeptical any such show could match the elegance of the movie version.

Whatever Dark City’s pop culture future might be, it remains one of the coolest science-fiction adventures of the 90s, and for me personally, an absolute pleasure center film I never get tired of.

Joseph Gibson is transmitting his possibly over-enthusiastic opinions from Austin, TX. His pieces for NeoText focus on the work of underappreciated genre film auteurs. Turn-ons include elaborate shoot-outs, dangerous stunts, and unexpected needle drops, while some of his turn-offs are overlong streaming series, bad comic relief, and redeeming social value.