Movie Battles: Dark City vs The Matrix

Two trench coats enter. One leaves.

The newest battle between two powerhouses of science fiction ask the same question: Is the world around us real? We currently live in a society where it’s becoming more obvious that the entertainment and news media we see are as processed and synthetic as fast food. Was Ed Harris correct in The Truman Show when he said “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented”? Seeing as there’s still a line of fat asses at the drive thru ready and willing to ingest “pink stuff” chicken, it’s hard to refute his point. Just one year apart, Alex Proyas and the (Jupiter) descending Wachowskis — gave us two different takes on a reality presented through a false prism. One of these films developed a following so gargantuan, there are novels that attempt to dissect all of its hidden meanings. The other tends to chill in the background with its quietly released director’s cut on blu-ray, with a commentary by the late great Roger Ebert. Which one did it better? Round one. Fight!

Dark City
Whether you’ve seen the theatrical version with the spoilerific opening voiceover by Kiefer Sutherland or the more enigmatic director’s cut released exclusively on blu-ray, there is no denying the surprises contained in Alex Proya’s outstanding and visionary film. It drips with palpable tension and atmosphere, brimming over with ideas about the core of our humanity. The philosophies in the screenplay by Proyas himself, written with Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer, go beyond the traditional confines of sci-fi, and crossover into a realm that’s downright spiritual. From the opening moments, Proyas establishes a world we think we’ve seen before, with dark and foreboding vistas that feel cobbled together out of classic films noir, and makes them feel alien and strange. He embroils us within the confusion of our hero, John Murdock, and then unleashes us upon this world that has been staged for us, a world where anything is possible, and the night never ends.

With a group of shadowy figures along with Detective William Hurt hot on Murdock’s heels— all dressed like Peter Lorre in MDark City is equal parts chase film, philosophical drama, classic mystery, and sci-fi thriller. It juices all these elements together to create a concoction that’s utterly unique. All of this would mean nothing without impeccable characterization to keep us grounded, and Dark City has that in spades. Rufus Sewell as Murdock is perfectly cast, with his expressive and penetrating eyes that hint at a vulnerable but caged beast within. Jennifer Connelly and William Hurt play simple archetypes, but as the film goes along, we and they realize that they are not just cogs in the machine. Their revelations give the entire narrative emotional weight. Kiefer Sutherland’s Dr. Schreber remains one of the most original characters in science fiction cinema. He gives us a man full of repressed emotion and self-hatred, yet also calculating and intelligent. The words escape from his mouth between quickly drawn and baited breaths, almost as if he’s physically struggling to catch up with his own train of thought. Whenever he is on screen, you can’t look anywhere else.

Silently encroaching on all of these beautifully drawn performances are the Strangers: Villainous beings that orchestrate everything, always ready to fly out of the shadows to change our destinies, learn our secrets, and steal away everything we think we are. The world they inhabit looks like something out of Ridley Scott’s nightmares after seeing Tetsuo: The Iron Man. From this lair that would terrify a Bond villain, they change our reality through the sheer force of will, and watch humanity scurry like mice in a maze. While the visual effects of the day may not hold up to the boundless ambition of its director, the production design, practical effects and miniatures still weave a spell that’s impossible to deny. The first time we see the buildings in the city shift — sliding left to right, stretching up into the sky out of nothingness — while memories traded and manipulated, with Trevor Jones’ masterful core pulsing through the speakers, the feeling is one we rarely get at the movies: Genuine awe and wonder.


The Matrix
This one really needs no introduction. The Matrix is a cultural milestone, akin to Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its arrival marked the beginning of so many trends in action and science fiction that, to ignore its cultural relevance, you would have to have been in a coma since 1999. Bullet Time is now part of filmmaking vernacular. “There is no spoon” gets tossed around at dinner tables where someone forgot to run silverware through the wash. And “whoa”… well, that’s still just as stupid as it ever was, but it’s something we all said the first time we sat down to watch this mind-bending game-changer. Many of the anime films that inspired the Wachowskis explored similar themes, but this was really the first time we got to sit down in a multiplex theater and see one play out in live action. The result, most shocking of all, did not insult our intelligence.

Keanu Reeves plays Tom Anderson, known as Neo on the internet. Of course, he is low man on the totem pole in his everyday life as a cubical jockey, but with enough push from Laurence Fishburne, just might be an easily deciphered anagram. By now, I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to reveal that the eponymous Matrix of the title is an expansive simulation universe designed to enslave humanity and turn us all into Duracell batteries for a species of artificial intelligence that doesn’t send robots back in time to stop the making of Bill and Ted. If you aren’t a human being plugged into the Matrix, you’re part of a small rebellion that hacks in, breaks the laws of physics, and prays not to get schooled by the ultimate firewall: The Agents. Led by Hugo Weaving in a performance that seriously deserved Oscar consideration, Agents are the Strangers of the Matrix, though much more sharply dressed. Only instead of staring at you while a scary kid tries to stab you in the face, these guys will rip your neck off and shit in your soul.

The Matrix was such a massive hit that it accomplished something that hadn’t been done since Blade Runner: It was a mainstream science fiction action film that was also a water cooler picture. People wanted to talk about it, discuss its meanings, debate the philosophy, and marvel over the visual effects. In fact, it’s so fun to watch and talk about, that it’s easy to forget that its stilted dialogue is sometimes laughable, and it completely drops the ball in the last act. A film that was practically busting at the seams with compelling ideas and Orwellian paranoia puts all of that on the back burner for an action climax that nosedives into pure unadulterated cheese with the utterance three words: “I love you.” Until Natalie Portman said those words to Hayden Christensen in Attack of the Clones, this film held the biggest loser trophy for the corniest confession of undying affection in the entire genre. As a coda to a film that still has me giddy at the ingenious writing about why chicken tastes like everything, this could have gone much further. Am I saying that the last act isn’t impeccably made? Of course not. This movie still kicks ass and takes names.



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The final verdict is that Dark City did it first, and did it better. While Alex Proyas does use his final act to stage an action sequence in which the hero reaches his full potential and fights back against a seemingly invincible opponent, the sequence is short and sweet, and it comes to fruition via an ingeniously edited flashback that could be used to teach a master class in how to build ravenous suspense. Proyas then goes back to those core ideas and shows us a new, changing world with infinite potential. In The Matrix, the film becomes completely about its action for the last third, all very well done and meticulously staged. It also ends on a note about a “brave new world,” but only talks about it before throwing one last visual effect gimmick at the camera. Yet it’s that unforgivable dive into romantic cheese that makes this easier to call.

The numerous parallels between these two films are damn near scary. Neo and Murdock are both clueless bystanders who are plucked from obscurity and told they can change the world. The Strangers and the Agents are invulnerably policing a reality in which they have no equals. The themes of what is real, and that humanity will inevitably rise up against any system designed to enslave it; all of this is so pert near identical that you have to wonder if the Wachowskis saw Dark City and took notes. In fact, if you watch the climax of Dark City and then watch the CGI masturbation on display between Agent Smith and Neo in The Matrix Revolutions, there is no doubt in the world that they saw it — along with many many episodes of Dragonball Z.

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- Blake O. Kleiner

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