This article contains spoilers for Dark City (1998).
Back in the late 90s, UK cinemas were still running an annual promotion where you got to see as many recently-released films as you liked for the tidy sum of £1 each. The promotion was usually only set up for one day, so movie buffs used to plan that day with extreme dedication. You had to line up the screening times just right to make sure no film overlapped, but if you had nerves of steel and a butt lining to match? Yeah, you could squeak through five major releases for £5 and feel insufferably smug about it.
Alex Proyas’ Dark City was one of the movies caught in the net of that promotion in 1998, and I remember being bowled over by how surprisingly weird it was. Clearly influenced by Metropolis, Brazil, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s The City of Lost Children, the neo-noir science fiction film arrived to positive reviews, but audiences weren’t really ready for it’s strangeness and it subsequently chalked up a disappointing box office result.
Maybe I didn’t help matters with my £1, and I’m truly sorry about that, which is why I was excited to learn that over two decades later I might have a fresh chance to fully get behind Dark City, as Proyas has now confirmed that a TV series based on the film is in the works.
“Dark City right now is really an intriguing one to me because we’re developing a series, a Dark City series, which we’re in the very early stages [of] but I’m having to re-analyze in order to construct a new story,” Proyas said (via Bloody Disgusting). “I’m having to go back and kind of jog my memory as to what we actually did and what I think worked and what I think didn’t work and re-evaluate my own film, so that’s been a very interesting experience as well which I’ve not done before.”
There are currently no details on what the series would entail, but its development is pretty intriguing considering Dark City’s legacy is kinda square in the realm of just being a small, beloved project that influenced other, often more successful, projects. Christopher Nolan was partly inspired by the film when he wrote Inception. Equilibrium, eXistenZ, and Requiem for a Dream all appear to owe some shading to Proyas’ sci-fi-experiment, and its weird tendrils still feel wrapped around the career of Dark City writer David S. Goyer.
If the movie had emerged further along the cinematic timeline, it might have had a much different fate than its “cult classic” brand – a year later the Wachowskis unleashed their sleeper hit The Matrix, which was filmed at the same studio as Dark City and even used some of Dark City’s sets. To be clear: The Matrix doesn’t just “look a bit like Dark City“, it also has a fairly similar vibe and plot to the blockbuster sci-fi action franchise that would go on to score a massive $3 billion in revenue.
In the stylish but gloomy tale, a confused man called John Murdoch wakes up to a phone call from a mysterious doctor, who tells him that a group of ominous men called “the Strangers” are pursuing him, and one of these Strangers in particular then becomes hyper focused on tracking him. A noir tale ensues as Murdoch pieces together his real identity and the true nature of the city he lives in, which is completely controlled by the Strangers. He also develops the power of psychokinesis and uses it to manipulate reality, overthrowing the Strangers’ control. In an incredible Twilight Zone-esque climax, the city itself is revealed as a deep space habitat covered by a force field.
A fair amount of this plot probably sounds familiar, but at the time it was fairly wild stuff. And now? It seems like the kind of project that would slide right into any prestige TV schedule like a knife through butter. Since Dark City was released, its themes of identity exploration and feeling trapped in what may or may not be a bleak simulation have become major viewing fodder.
Lost ran for six seasons on ABC. Wayward Pines became TV’s most-watched show during the summer of its release. Mr. Robot kicked Sam Esmail and Rami Malek’s careers into high gear. Westworld became HBO’s pricey flagship sci-fi series. I could go on listing examples for a while, as virtually every network or streamer has sought at least one serialized dark mystery hit at some point in the last twenty years.
Even on the film side, the genre shows no sign of slowing down. Warner Bros. has just gambled a huge wad of money to get a fourth big screen Matrix offering ready in the same year that Free Guy, a film about an NPC who becomes self-aware and tries to save the day, is released.
Clearly the well has not run dry, and Dark City could now be in an ideal place to take advantage of the viewing public’s hunger for the genre, but there’s another reason that a series set in the film’s universe would work better now than it did in the ’90s – humanity has felt increasingly trapped by invisible enemies, and continues to be instilled with the post-Matrix realization that even if an individual broke free of the “concept” of reality, there would be nowhere left to go.
As the march of capitalism destroys the climate of our humble rock and emerging viruses alter the way we live forever while billionaires spend their wealth encroaching space, is there a better time to explore new stories of people determined to seize some power back and live their authentic lives in the face of certain doom?