Although only one of the films would break through to the mass consciousness, starting in 1998 the high priests of Hollywood would weave a triptych of films that on an mundane level seemed unrelated, but on an esoteric level tell the same story. Alex Proyas' Dark City, the Wachowski Brothers' The Matrix and Christopher Nolan's Memento look at dying/resurrecting savior mythology from three different perspectives: Sun God, Gnostic Messiah, and Antichrist.
The first was Dark City, written and directed by Alex Proyas (I, Robot, Knowing), born September 23, 1963 in - of all places- Egypt. Proyas was somewhat of a prodigy and would direct his first film in 1980 at the age of --wait for it-- seventeen. In 1994, Proyas would score his first hit with the cult smash, The Crow, yet another of the ritual dramas derived from the comic book dream factory.
The Crow was somewhat of a watershed for pop culture. The then-underground streams of Goth culture and occult-themed comics would ride The Crow’s coattails and become major influences on youth culture in general. The film also boasted a hit soundtrack with tracks by altrock acts like the Cure, Helmet, Nine Inch Nails and Rage Against the Machine. Like The Dark Knight, the film swept like a tidal wave when it's young star was killed before the film's release (note also that the Crow character also used Jaz Coleman's Jester makeup).
Proyas leveraged the success of The Crow to make Dark City. Proyas tapped the young British actor Rufus Sewall to star as John Murdoch (read: "Oannes Marduk"), the man who would bring the sun to Dark City. Murdoch is a man who wakes up in a bathtub with no memories. He lives in a 1940’s era city trapped in permanent midnight. A voice-over by by the expository Doctor Scherber (played by Keifer Sutherland) sets the stage: a race of aliens called the Strangers had mastered time and the physical world, but were dying because they did not possess souls. They needed the vital essence of spirit, so had created this simulacrum of a world to imprison and study the human soul so they could become one with it.
Like the earlier Talosians from Star Trek (above) and the later Agents in The Matrix, the non-individuated Strangers were the direct descendants of the Archons of Gnostic mythology, prison wardens of an illusory world. The Strangers look like a cross between Nosferatu and the Borg, and dress like the ‘Men in Black’ from 60’s UFO lore.
Murdoch is simultaneously born and baptized as the Solar Redeemer. He is awake while the whole city is asleep (at the Strangers’ command). His rebirth in water recalls Oannes’, and his first act is rescue a goldfish, whose bowl Murdoch inadvertently knocks over. Fish and ocean imagery will later play a prominent part in Dark City (both Oannes and Marduk are strongly connected to water). In the apartment where Murdoch stands lies a dead woman with spirals cut into her breasts.
More symbolism- the spiral is connected to the moon, water, the vulva and shells, according to Chevalier and Gheerbrant's authoritative Dictionary of Symbols. The Strangers are murdering the very source of what they're searching for.
Murdoch doesn’t know it yet, but he is being framed for her murder. Murdoch then receives a strange telephone call, warning him that the police are coming for him. This exact event would be repeated in The Matrix the following year.
As Murdoch escapes the apartment to the city streets below, he is pursued by the Strangers, but discovers he has the power to alter reality, which he uses to make his escape. A classic fugitive dream-story follows with Murdoch pursued by the Strangers, Doctor Schreber and a mild-mannered yet relentless homicide detective named Bumstead (played by William Hurt, of Altered States fame, significantly). Bumstead is also concerned with his former partner Walenski, a man who has woken up to the same reality Murdoch has, but is powerless to do anything about it and is subsequently going mad.
Murdoch is rescued from the police by a gorgeous prostitute, and discovers that he has a beautiful wife (played by the young, buxom Jennifer Connelly), who works as a torch singer in a smoky nightclub (remember that Hathor/Aphrodite is the goddess of sex and music). The eternal power of the Feminine is also signified in Murdoch’s Grail Quest for the mythical Shell Beach, a childhood refuge which Murdoch visits repeatedly in his mind.
The importance of the erotic power that fuels this quest are portrayed when he defeats a powerful band of Strangers on a catwalk below a Shell Beach billboard. The billboard features a motorized animated bikini bombshell, beckoning Murdoch to join her and revel in the mysteries of fertility. The shell is associated with the birth of Aphrodite, the Greek analog of Hathor who rose from the sea on a shell. The shell was a symbol of the female genitals to the Greeks, and the Greek word Kteis means both ‘seashell’ and ‘vagina.’
The immersion into the power of the Sacred Feminine gives Murdoch his power, which is in direct contrast to the Strangers, who are entirely male. The Strangers are always working: creating false memories (rewriting history, in other words), changing the shape and form of the city, moving people from one life to another (note that all of these methods are being used on us all of the time in the real world). The Strangers assemble regularly in their lair to perform the ‘Tuning,’ the telepathic ritual that maintains their control over this world. Pretty heady stuff hiding behind the veil of sci-fi.
The sight of the assembled Strangers resembles a gothic version of the Roman Senate or a Vatican conclave (note also that their street clothes look remarkably Hasidic as well). But they symbolize pure thought devoid of experience, which is inherently denatured and unbalanced. The all-male Strangers have the power to create a world, but cannot save themselves, because they lack the feminine - and natural- virtues as balance.
The Strangers are parasitic. They are constantly changing the world to keep people confounded and enslaved. By depriving people of the certainties of home, family and environment, they are defeating their own purpose. The denizens of Dark City have no souls either, because it is only though the certainties of history and sense of place that the soul can thrive. The Strangers have an aversion to light and water (the essence of life and therefore of the soul) and can only survive by inhabiting discarded corpses. In actuality, they are small, Lovecraftian squid-like space-things.
The true nature of the Strangers is revealed to Murdoch in the subway, a common symbol for the revelation the Mysteries in these ritual dramas (we saw a repeat of this motif in Proyas' Knowing). Again, underground chambers were common meeting places for Mystery cults in antiquity, a tradition that the Christians would appropriate when they held meetings in Roman catacombs.
In this particular resurrection story, Murdoch is trying to get to Shell Beach, and is confronted by the deranged Walenski (shades of ‘Wachowski’, strangely enough) who reveals the illusory nature of Dark City and the power of the strangers. In this story he is like the biblical John the Baptist who initiates the Solar messiah and when his function is served, he throws himself in front of an onrushing subway train. Murdoch goes to visit his Uncle Karl at Neptune’s Kingdom. Neptune is the Roman name for Poseidon, the father of Orion ( the latter is identified with Osiris in Egyptian astrology).
Murdoch is then arrested by Bumstead using Emma as the bait. But in one of those archetypal prison phone booth scenes, Emma’s fecund womb inspires Murdoch to smash the glass separating them, signaling once and for all the source of this Sun God’s power. Bumstead interrogates Murdoch who challenges the detective to tell him how to get to Shell Beach. Murdoch and Bumstead then travel with Scherber by boat to the Beach’s location and find only a poster advertisement for it. Together Murdoch and Bumstead smash at the brick wall the poster adorns and discover that the city is in fact a spacecraft. The Strangers arrive and abduct Murdoch, and bring him to their inner sanctum.
The Black Sun, yet again
The Strangers have decided that Murdoch is the one who will help them individuate, and to save themselves they must become one with him. Wielding symbolism as subtle as a baseball bat to the kidneys, Murdoch is crucified. On his cross, Murdoch awaits "insertion," here in the form of a syringe wielded by Scherber that is meant to extract his essence for consumption by the Strangers. But Scherber has betrayed the Strangers and imbues Murdoch with an alchemical elixir designed to help him realize his full divinity.
Murdoch steps down from his cross, and he is risen as the Sun god. With the powers of his mind, he begins destroying the Strangers and their sanctum, and then the city itself. Soon he is joined in battle by "Mr. Book," the leader of the Strangers. His name is appropriate, for this is also a battle of the Spirit versus the Letter. Mr. Book is defeated, and Murdoch’s first act is to create a vast ocean encircling the city. He then restores all the bricks and stones of the city, like some cosmic master stonemason.
Murdoch then reaches the summit of his apotheosis and creates a sun and an ocean. His next act is to create Shell Beach, with the obligatory obelisk (in the form of a lighthouse).
Then he walks down the pier he has seen so many times in vision. At the end of the pier awaits Emma. In this incarnation her name is Anna (read: "Inanna," goddess of the sky and Sumerian counterpart to Hathor and Aphrodite) and she doesn't remember him. And together they walk to Shell Beach.
All this blindingly obvious Solar and fertility symbolism begs the question: what (or where) is Dark City? What does it represent? Who are the Strangers? Why do they loathe water and sunshine, the basic necessities of life itself? Who is Murdoch? Does he represent an idea or a person (or group of persons)? Is this pure Gnostic parable like the later Matrix or something else entirely? The Matrix doesn’t go near these elemental themes, it concerns itself solely with more abstract ideas.
Dark City is rife with the celebration of fertility and the feminine principle. This is like ritual drama at its most distilled- there are heroes and villains here. There is an apocalyptic struggle played out against the backdrop of specifically Solar fertility symbols. Shell Beach is the object of a grail quest- one in the purest esoteric sense. The fact that that the Strangers are killing prostitutes parallels their aversion to water and light. The whore was often identified with the Great Mother in antiquity, and by killing a whore they are symbolically destroying the womb of creation.
Another precursor to Dark City et al:
"A Feasibility Study" on The Outer Limits
"A Feasibility Study" on The Outer Limits
Stripped of its meaning as an elemental parable, Dark City makes very little sense. It’s never explained who Murdoch is and why he has these powers. It’s never explained what these powers even are. It’s never explained how he came to be. The only way he makes any sense at all is as an AstroGnostic Sun god. That is the key that unlocks all the mysteries of Dark City. The connections to Proyas' Knowing are tantalizing in relation to Dark City, in that our own planet becomes the prison, the Sun the executioner and the Strangers become the saviors. Is Dark City in fact our own planet, and are we the prisoners of unknowable Archons of indeterminate origin?
More to come.