Real deal

As ‘The Matrix’ completes 20 years, a look at the underrated and unsung ‘Dark City’ that was released a year before Neo took the red pill

April 08, 2019 04:01 pm | Updated 04:01 pm IST

Still from ‘Dark City’ (1998)

Still from ‘Dark City’ (1998)

On March 31, 1999, when Neo took the red pill, the world was able to free their minds. That the said freeing of the mind took place in bullet time set to music by The Prodigy, Rage Against the Machine and Massive Attack was an added bonus. As we celebrate 20 years of The Matrix and try to figure out anew why Neo and gang wore shades in the matrix when the sun was blotted out, we should spare a thought to Alex Proyas’ visually-dazzling Dark City , which came out on February 27, 1998.

Both movies use Plato’s Allegory of the Cave as the central concept. The allegory tells of people chained in a cave facing a blank wall. For the prisoners, the shadows they see on the wall represent reality. The Matrix directed by The Wachowskis told the story of an office drone, Thomas A Anderson, (what does the A stand for? Adam? Andrew?) who leads a double life as a hacker Neo in search of the truth behind the smoke and mirrors.

Still of Keanu Reeves in ‘The Matrix’ (1999)

Still of Keanu Reeves in ‘The Matrix’ (1999)

After taking the red pill, Neo realises that the world he is living in is a simulation, as AI became self-aware and enslaved us to use our bio-electric charge after we blotted out the sun, the source of the machine’s energy. With its black-and-green palette, techno music, sharp suits and bullet time, The Matrix was a stylishly-exhilarating way of addressing all our turn-of-the-millennium fears.

Symbolism and more

For a movie set in the world of technology, The Matrix has aged well. We can look at the blocky computers and the melting lines of code with fondness. When Morpheus, the leader of the resistance, talks of AI taking over, he is presciently describing our reality now, where we are only too happy to let an algorithm decide what to watch, wear or eat.

The movie is layered with pop symbolism from the names and Neo’s awakening in a tub of gunk to the literal unplugging from the system. In today’s world, one can sympathise with the traitor Cypher, who doesn’t want the real world with Morpheus’ portentous pronouncements and the terrible food. He would rather eat pretend-steak.

As far as casting goes, even though Will Smith and Nicolas Cage turned down the role of Neo, and Brad Pitt and Val Kilmer were the studio’s choice, one cannot imagine anyone other than Keanu Reeves as the blank-faced saviour of the world. Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity has an electric introduction, but then devolves into moist-eyed love interest.

Still of Carrie-Ann Moss an Keanu Reeves in ‘The Matrix’ (1999)

Still of Carrie-Ann Moss an Keanu Reeves in ‘The Matrix’ (1999)

Laurence Fishburne as the unfortunately-named Morpheus, lives up to his name by mumbling esoteric mumbo-jumbo in a sonorous voice. Hugo Weaving wears his humanness as the antagonist Agent Smith like an uncomfortable second skin. The climax of The Matrix is a wee bit disappointing, as Neo and Trinity decide to attack AI the old-fashioned way by shooting ’em up.

While The Matrix looked to the future, Dark City, like production designer Patrick Tatopoulos says, “Takes place everywhere and nowhere. It is a city built of pieces of cities.” Even the time frame seems to be a pastiche of different eras.

Still of Kiefer Sutherland in ‘Dark City’ (1998)

Still of Kiefer Sutherland in ‘Dark City’ (1998)

John Murdoch wakes up in the bath with no memory of who he is and a corpse in the room. On the run and looking for answers, Murdoch is hunted by the police, who suspect him to be a serial killer, and a group of shadowy beings called the Strangers. The truth Murdoch finds out is poignant, as the Strangers are a dying race of aliens who hope to survive by studying our memories to figure out what makes us human.

The rebuilding of the city, the claustrophobia of darkness, the shock of dazzling sunlight, are virtuoso feats of design. Starring Rufus Sewell as John Murdoch, Kiefer Sutherland as the doctor doing the Strangers’ dirty work and Jennifer Connelly as Murdoch’s wife, Dark City is elegantly-put together, with every question being logically answered in the realm of fantasy and science fiction. It is a shame that the movie didn’t do well despite critical acclaim. Or maybe it is a good thing, as the ginormous success of The Matrix resulted in the hideous sequels.

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