Given the tendency in mass mediated popular culture to relentlessly denigrate business and commerce, profit and wealth (somewhat paradoxically, given the commercial wealth of the companies and artists that produce this stuff), I find myself often annoyed and incensed at the comic book clichés to which we are routinely subjected. I find myself longing for film and television with libertarian themes just so that not every moment of my viewing leisure is squandered in the dead brain zone of statist and collectivist agitprop. In that spirit, I am initiating an occasional series of reviews, as a service to those of you who share my appetite to see some motion picture art that reflects our understanding of the real world. Suggestions that I might review here are welcomed and appreciated. My goal is to whet your appetite, not to satisfy your hunger; spoilers are avoided and theme is emphasized over plot in my discussions.
The inaugural entry in this series is a review of the much neglected and underappreciated, in fact surprisingly unknown, film Dark City. The number of name movie stars who fill out the cast makes the general neglect of the film rather odd in itself. Though, admittedly, for some, it was early in their careers. But, then, if Coppola’s Outsiders can pick up retroactive cred for its pre-famous cast, where’s the love for Dark City? It couldn’t be due to its unabashed libertarian themes could it?
It is hard to imagine a film that provides a more pure depiction of the conflict between collectivism and individualism. The Strangers, as they are occasionally called, are conceived as the epitome of collectivism: all part of a single mind. Those who aspire to mandated equality couldn’t ask for a more rigorous homogenization. And, in keeping with the political and philosophical “progressive” and socialist traditions associated with such statist programs of collectivism and homogenization, the Strangers are the perfect embodiment of authoritarian central planning and social engineering. They simply mould the world to the ends that they’ve identified as most beneficial.
In contrast to the Strangers stands the human individual, John Murdoch. While other humans, to the limited degrees of their own possibilities stand up against the Strangers, it is Murdoch who embodies individuality as such. The Strangers, it turns out, are dying. The lesson for collectivists of this film is that the more homogenized that central planners and social engineers succeed in moulding the material of human life the more they weaken our species in its struggle for survival. Lacking individuality, the Strangers are unable to benefit from natural selection to adapt to the world. It is precisely the individuality of the humans, their intrinsic diversity, which gives rise to the possibility that one of them, potentially of no distinction in the environment of humanity’s long evolution, suddenly transplanted into this new environment possesses some mutation that enables him to “tune.” Appreciating the significance of that ability requires viewing the film.
This is not just the same old David and Goliath story, of the small guy, Frodo Baggins-like, rising up in some heroic gesture to vanquish evil, against overwhelming odds. It’s not clear that the Strangers really even are evil. They are self-serving, but they are also just desperately trying to survive. Yet, in the process, they have enslaved the humans – minds as well as bodies. Murdoch’s defeat of them though is not just the victory of the rugged individual, but it is the victory of individuality itself. It is the victory of a life rooted in human difference and diverse potentials over a life of homogenized collectivism and the self-serving machinations (if you’ll excuse the pun) of central planning and social engineering necessary for its survival.
The great irony of the story is the Strangers’ inability, perhaps because so cognitively enslaved by their collectivism, to recognize what’s right in front of their faces. They recognize the fact of human differences, indeed the constant manipulation of those differences is the method of their experiments. What they can’t see, though, the forest for the trees, is that it is no specific kind, set or series of differences that matter, but individuality itself, which is the key to the robustness of human life which they are unable to grasp, thus sealing their fate.
I could imagine some viewers interpreting the film’s end as being one in which Murdoch has simply replaced the Stranger’s as the grand clock master. Notice, though, that in the end, all the thousands or millions (we never really know) of other humans that inhabit the dark city have disappeared from the story. There is only John and Emma/Anna. The moral is surely not that John has now become the master of the world, but, rather that, like any aspiring individual, he has taken over control of and responsibility for his own life. Surely that is as libertarian a goal and message as one could hope for from a mainstream commercial film these days.