If generic conventions exist as a means of facilitating understanding, the 1998 film Dark City succeeds in provoking viewers through its appropriation of various genres. Broadly it is an action film, more specifically a dystopian science-fiction, and it is a detective film noir as well. It is not the first film of this nature: Blade Runner was released 16 years prior, and Total Recall shares many essential elements. Dark City taps a specific type of detective movie, the film noir, and makes use of other sub-genres besides.
Dark City’s film noir elements are the most immediately visible. The visual code of film noir is well-established and recognizable. The sets are reminiscent of the 1940s or 50s, the colors are sepia-toned, and the location is an unnamed metropolis. There are settings typical of film noir, from the film’s start in a seedy motel and leading to a detective’s office and a smoky lounge. Some scenes are cribbed from dozens of previous mystery and action films: The hopeless pursuit down a spiral staircase, shot from above and below. While Dark City’s villains are emotionless aliens, they do the audience the favor of wearing uniform black hats.
Archetypal film noir characters appear in a montage common to the action genre as a whole: The rookie cop yearning to impress his higher-ups, the passionate but wearied detective, and the good cop who just couldn’t take the stress. Perhaps most important is the film’s protagonist, a good guy framed for a crime he didn’t commit.
Despite these tropes, Dark City’s film noir elements serve mostly as a façade for the standard science-fiction adventure. After the title cards, the film’s internal mythology is dictated to the audience, as in Star Wars and other fantasies. Some of the science fiction tropes are very detailed in their execution. One of them is the coercion of the fundamentally good scientist: In Dark City, there is a scene in which a stammering doctor must explain to the menacing alien why the hero has not been sedated properly. Calling the scene predictable would be an understatement, but it is crucial in establishing the protagonist’s assistant as a conflicted character attempting to do the right thing. There is also the battle of wills or stand-off between the intrepid hero and the oppressive force, a back-and-forth that usually reaches its apex when the hero taps his superior emotional reserves.
This hero merits some examination. The protagonist is necessarily an everyman, if perhaps a more durable or athletic one. This is the advantage of the amnesiac hero: It further provides the predominantly young, male audience with a blank slate onto which they may project themselves. He is the definition of masculinity and supremely goal-oriented, even if he doesn't know or understand his goal at the film's start. By the film's end, he has asserted his identity and been rewarded, often with the love of an ever-present female interest.
Dark City is among a set of stylized science-fiction films that birthed The Matrix and has remained popular since. The films are produced with exceptionally high budgets, mostly spent on computer-generated effects. These effects are spectacular and pervade the film, often augmenting the cost of fantastic sets. The set of films of which Dark City is a member are anti-authoritarian and existential in tone, striking an odd balance between cerebral science-fiction and summer blockbusters. That is, while they may meditate on themes of reality and perception, they also feature heroes who can chew up scenery. These films, often released at the start of blockbuster season, are seen as perhaps more respectable than their less incisive counterparts.
It is its treatment of generic conventions that identify Dark City as a postmodern work. It is heavily intertextual, anticipating a fairly sophisticated audience able to derive more than just the spectacle presented to them. The viewer is expected to be familiar with the film noir convention, which is no easy task, considering how widely the form has fallen out of favor in the past 40 years. Ultimately, though, it is a film unlikely to be approved by critics or to curry its stars additional awards or acclaim. These films operate on a regular timetable, produced each year and released on DVD quickly. They are, generally speaking, not to be remembered, but Dark City's generic transgression makes it memorable (and for this purpose, useful).