Why I Love Dieselpunk: Dark City
Still in the throes of infatuation for it a decade later, I take a closer look at one of my favorite movies: Dark City.
Alex Proyas’ 1998 film is undoubtedly one of the biggest reasons I can resonate so well with dieselpunk concepts. This movie is typically overlooked for being a lower budget “Matrix before the Matrix” (note: if I can rationalize Orwellian ideals as dieselpunk, Equilibrium aka “Matrix after the Matrix” will too be covered). But in what Keanu Reeves and his knowing kung-fu did for the technopunk culture, I like to think that Dark City could be seen as a similar monument in this respect for diesel.
I do forewarn that while I will try to curb exposing some of the major plot points, SPOILERS are present that may lessen the enthrallment this movie can provide in its first viewing.
While not all neo-noir movies such as this one can be classified as diesel (here is where I tug at the coattails of Blade Runner in futility), Dark City’s strong – but not complete – look of the classic noir background makes it an easy case. This amalgamation of cars, clothing, and culture adds to both the mystery of what has transpired in this city as well as the universality of the human spirit, something central to this film.
As the movie progresses, the themes transform – as does the city – to reveal in a Lovecraftian fashion that beneath the fragile veneer of reality lies unnerving truths. Another strong theme throughout the movie is memories, or rather then manipulation of them. While I perceive this as a bit of a wink and nod to similar ideas held in the many works of Philip K. Dick of technopunk fame, again the matter is handled in a technologically primitive and visceral way the likes of which the dark side of diesel often finds itself.
What makes the film so engaging is its mystique. Despite the blunt prologue given in a voiceover by Kiefer Sutherland (thankfully absent from the director’s cut), the story continues to perplex the viewer as to what’s going on. Are these citizens aware of the Strangers or not? How do they possess such extraordinary powers? And what ties our hero, John Murdoch, to the fiascos around him?
It may sound like any other mystery plot, but the way in which it’s composed follows an authentic, detective–noir feel. The hard-boiled detective with a heart of gold, the crazy loon who knows the truth, it almost seems cliché in its characters types. But in a way, that’s the point of the movie with its theme of discovering the composition of what humans are. Despite the menagerie and constant changes in the movie, John Murdoch prevails due to his determination and spirit. So between this, the obvious 50s design, and the always natural beauty of Jennifer Connelly, I’m proud to slap the label of dieselpunk on a very provocative movie.