Do You Know the Way to Shell Beach?: ‘Dark City’ and the Dangers of Nostalgia

by David Ober
Dark City

Over twenty years ago, Dark City, Alex Proyas’ follow-up to The Crow, dropped into theaters only to be quietly, ignominiously shuffled out. On its opening weekend, Dark City came in fourth, beaten by not only Titanic in its eleventh week of release but also The Wedding Singer and Good Will Hunting. Dark City would go on to make less than $15 million during its domestic run on what purportedly cost a budget of anywhere between $30-$40 million. 

It seems like few moviegoers were clamoring to see what Alex Proyas would do for his sophomore, full-length film. There are plenty of reasons why Dark City didn’t drum up lots of public excitement at the time. It didn’t have an A-list headliner. Rufus Sewell has had a lengthy and distinguished career bouncing back and forth between film and television, but unless you had watched the BBC adaptation of Middlemarch, you probably didn’t know who he was in 1998. The trailer may have been confusing. It didn’t let the audience in on the film’s plot or even genre. Watching the trailer, Dark City looks more like a horror film than sci-fi noir. 

Of course, none of this deterred me at the time. The Crow was in steady rotation at my house, and I was excited to see what Proyas was going to do next. In fact, I wasn’t concerned that the trailer was confusing. If anything, I found the trailer more mysterious than mystifying. While in the theater, it was as if the world outside didn’t exist. And when Murdoch finally steps onto Shell Beach at the end of the film, the first time we see daylight during the course of the film, it felt like a light turned on in my head. 

Since that time, I’ve returned to Dark City again and again, and every time I immerse myself in the film, I find something slightly new, a detail I may have missed or a different angle of interpretation. To borrow from Hemingway, the film really is a moveable feast.

In recent years, I’ve been drawn to ways in which Dark City interrogates the nature of nostalgia. (This review will casually drop some spoilers. So if you’ve never watched Dark City, then stop reading and go watch it as soon as possible.) 

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Searching for a Memory: Nostalgia as a Trap

As the film opens, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a bathtub, unable to remember what brought him there or even his own name. Piecing together some clues, Murdoch discovers that he’s estranged from his wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly). Even more disconcerting, he may, in fact, be the serial killer who has been terrorizing the city’s sex workers. Murdoch is pursued not only by Police Detective Bumstead, but also by mysterious men who appear to have psychokinetic powers. Tracing his past, he discovers Shell Beach, a vacation spot from his youth. Soon, it becomes just as important for Murdoch to find the location of Shell Beach as it is to discover the secret of these mysterious men following him.

We find out, of course, that Murdoch’s memories aren’t real. Like all residents of the eponymous city, he’s had memories implanted by the Strangers, aliens who have hijacked the dead bodies of humans, who are running an extensive experiment looking for the “human soul.” 

And yet this doesn’t make his memories of Shell Beach much different than our own cherished childhood experiences. Many have a tendency to project a Utopian vision in our formative years. As we get older and the pressures of adulthood weigh down on us, it becomes easier to craft a bright, technicolor image of our childhood experiences, from vacations with our family to sitting down and watching formative films. 

By making Murdoch quest after a nonexistence memory, Proyas makes his film just as much about navigating internal space as it is about navigating physical space. Repeatedly, Murdoch asks residents of the city if they know the way to Shell Beach. Some give him answers that turn out to be dead ends while others simply can’t remember the details clearly enough once they try to conjure directions. Like all memories, what at first seems like concrete details give way to a fuzzy haze. How many of our favorite childhood events are merely impressions buried beneath layers of emotions?

Of course, childhood isn’t a wonderful moment in any of our lives. You are told what to do and where to go during most of your days. From teachers, administrators, and fellow students, school can be a terror. But these aren’t the moments we like to remember. We remember things like Shell Beach, a place where we can escape with family.

Shell Beach, with its sand, waves, and sunshine, nicely contrasts with the imagery of the city itself, which is bathed in shadows. Murdoch’s nostalgia for Shell Beach is a nostalgia for a time of freedom. If anything it’s simply a longstanding metaphor for escape, and when Murdoch finally does reach Shell Beach the only thing he finds is an advertisement on a brick wall. When he decides to break through the wall, Murdoch discovers the truth that the world he thinks he knows is an illusion. Instead, he and his fellow denizens are trapped in space in a simulacrum of a human city forced to play guinea pigs for the Strangers.

Shell Beach isn’t real. But we could say the same thing about our most cherished memories.

The Greek roots for the word nostalgia mean both “homecoming” and “pain.” In some sense, the more we long for our past, the greater joy we project onto that past, the more melancholy we might feel at never being able to fully reclaim those moments. And Murdoch’s search for Shell Beach is a story of continual deferral until the final realization that what he’s searching for never existed in the first place.

So what does Dark City have to teach us about nostalgia twenty years on? If anything, nostalgia is even more prevalent in our culture than it was at the end of the twentieth century. We no longer have to simply remember our favorite cartoons from childhood; YouTube can summon them in seconds. We can relive everything that once made us so happy. And yet so many of us still seem so miserable. That’s because no matter what, we can never get back to those simpler times, or at least we can never get back to how we imagine those simpler times to be. When a sequel to our favorite childhood movie comes out, and it doesn’t generate that same thrill we had when we were kids, our first instinct is anger that the movie hasn’t met our expectations, that it has somehow “ruined our childhood.”

Dark City

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Out of the Past: Nostalgia as a Creative Well

Dark City teaches us to not hold on to our past too tightly, but ironically, the film itself is an act of nostalgia. Proyas brought together some of his influential movies to create Dark City: the film noir of Otto Preminger, the cyberpunk of Blade Runner, F. W. Murnau’s and Robert Weine’s German expressionism, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” and the paintings of Edward Hopper. But Dark City is hardly reducible to one or two of its influences. It can’t simply be described as Blade Runner meets Out of the Past. Proyas has mined his past obsessions and influences in order to make something new. 

In a bit of metacommentary, Dark City seems to be commenting on Proyas’s own creative process. In order to carry out their experiments, the Strangers swap memories while also mixing and matching parts of the city. They’ve abducted humans from different eras and placed them into a city of their making, which is a convenient explanation for why clothing, architecture, and cars from the twenties through the seventies stand side by side like some sort of bricolage. Like Proyas, the Strangers are artists. And they’ve created something new because they’re not pulling from a single source or a single period in time.

Dark City provides us with a blueprint for creativity, and it’s not just about pulling from the past, yanking our childhood favorites into the present day. Creativity is always about influence, but it’s also about finding new influences and combining them in new and unique ways. 

Dark City

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Dark City Speaks to Our Nostalgia-Obsessed Present

This is what our era of nostalgia-baiting sequels and remakes could learn from Dark City. There’s nothing wrong with sequels or remakes. Just about every work of art builds off what came before, and the same stories are told and retold as reflected through their particular moment in time. It’s the fact that new artists remold these stories every so often that makes them still relevant. Some of my favorite films are not wholly original. Both 1941’s The Maltese Falcon and 1939’s The Wizard of Oz were not the first film versions of those stories. In film, to be groundbreaking, or even iconic, you don’t necessarily have to be first.

Right now, Disney is in a race to dominate America’s box office, and part of that plan is to leverage classic animated films by remaking them into live-action adaptations (or “live action” depending on how you define the new Lion King). These “original” animated films were of course adaptations themselves of classic fairy tales, so there’s nothing inherently wrong about taking another stab at these stories. There’s a reason why they’re classics.

But too often these live-action remakes simply add a new paint job to the animated film, treating it like it’s the sole version of this tale. I would have loved to have seen the new Beauty and the Beast pull from the surrealism of Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete or the recent Aladdin recreate the bustling cosmopolitan Baghdad from the silent film version of The Thief of Baghdad. Instead, both films clung tightly to Disney’s version, blocking out different versions of those stories.

These films rely on our nostalgia to sell tickets, and because they’re pulling from a single source, these remakes limit themselves. These films aren’t interested in mixing and rearranging influences in the style of Dark CIty; they’re interested in giving us a road map to Shell Beach, a destination they know we can never reach, even if many will pay for the promised trip. 

Dark City is a great film not only because Proyas has assembled great works of art into something new, but also because while doing so he mined our own anxieties and desires. After more than twenty years, Dark City still speaks to us. It still has something to say about our own quests for meaning and our desire to continually return to a better past that never truly was. I wonder what it will tell me in the coming decades.

Follow MovieBabble on Twitter @MovieBabble_ and David @ober_d

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frasersherman July 31, 2019 - 9:46 am

Glad to see some love for such an amazing film.

MovieBabble July 31, 2019 - 9:45 am

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