“The Monster You Were Intended to Be”: Nature and Nurture in Dark City (1998)

Ask yourself, would you be the same person if you had different memories? Would you have the same qualities, would you think the same way? We call this line of questioning the nature versus nurture debate, and its often found in film because it’s a useful commentary on morality and human nature. It’s also a fairly simple concept, the kind you come across in a first-year philosophy course. While most agree that human behaviour is actually dictated by a mix of nature and nurture, as it’s impossible to separate the two entirely, this debate is persistent. It also has huge political and judicial consequences. Is a person born bad or do their choices and the choices made for them create terrible outcomes? In other words, are we driven by some predetermined fate based on our upbringing and environment or do we have some agency and spontaneity?

Consider what either of these options mean for our legal system. Is it moral to persecute someone whose actions only had one outcome, just based on their background? You can understand why it’s such a contested question and why film is often used as a tool to unpack both these debates and why we are still having them.

Science fiction films do an excellent job of imagining what could happen if we side too far with nature or nurture. There are several films where people are punished for crimes that they have not committed, but eventually will, based on special calculations. These films are deeply troubling and important, and perhaps my favourite example is Dark City. Rather than asking whether we are driven by nature or nurture, Dark City poses the question: is our capacity for individualism adaptable? In other words, can a person adapt beyond the confines of nature or nurture, and can they be more than that simplistic binary?

“I love you, John. You can’t fake something like that.”

Dark City is an entrancing and alarming film about memory, light, and individuality. Much like the Matrix (1999), it plays with our suspicion that something about reality is amiss, which I will admit, slips into highly problematic conspiracy theories. While doing research for this post, I came across a bizarre comment section where accounts were busy debating the existence of lizard people. So, some caution is certainly needed when discussing films like this.

In case the lizard people insanity has you worried, I would argue that this film isn’t as direct a criticism as the Matrix or other ‘reality is fake’ films. Dark City is more of a philosophical situation which is meant to affirm and examine what makes us human, not what makes reality. The film (spoilers) takes place in a slightly wrong, outdated, and constantly dark city which is later revealed to be an alien planet. Because of this location, I don’t think we can really speculate on the ‘reality is a simulation’ issue in the film. Dark City is more concerned with its subjects, not their environment, which is constantly changing. I should also note, heavy spoilers ahead.

“We fashion this city on stolen memories: different eras, different pasts all rolled into one.”

The film centers on John Murdoch after he wakes up in a hotel bathtub and finds a dead woman in his room. He cannot remember who he is, why he is in a hotel, or what happened to this woman, and so he flees the scene. As he begins to regain some fragmented memories, he continues to run from the police and a group of strange and menacing pale figures. Along with his wife Emma and Inspector Frank Bumstead, John discovers that something truly bizarre is happening to this world. Every night, a crowd of these strange figures congregate and changes the city, reaping buildings from the ground and moving people to new homes, new families, and new lives. Once this updated city is built, they insert new memories into citizens. It’s eventually revealed that these strangers are a group of aliens who have abducted humans to test if we have a soul. The aliens are on the brick of extinction, and they need to learn what makes us human, specifically, if we have one narrative (a soul) which governs our behaviour regardless of our background and memory.

These memory switches are often quite drastic, as we see a poor couple move from poverty to extreme wealth in a single night. We watch as they change their posture and demeaner just from these new memories. Examples like this suggest that people are dictated by their memories, as it initially seems like this once poor couple has transformed into totally different people. However, the film eventually suggests that people aren’t transforming into brand new beings, they are adapting. They are still the same person, regardless of their environment and memories, and they still have the same morals and thought processing. John is proof of this, as he refuses certain memories even though he cannot remember who he is. He knows enough about himself to know what he would or wouldn’t do, even though he questions this occasionally. Although John’s insertion goes wrong, as he wakes up in the middle of it, he still has some of the inserted memories. He can remember murder and violence, but he cannot bring himself to kill anyone.

“What kind of killer do you think stops to save a dying fish?”

John received the memories of a murderer because the strangers want to know if he would become a murderer, given the memories of one. John proves them wrong, as although he has been several different people in his lifetime, there is some defining characteristic inside him. The aliens might be able to erase past lives, but there is some individuality present in each of these lives. It is not even a matter of nature versus nurture, as the film shows that an individual can adapt and change while still being the same person. Their choices will be their own, regardless of these artificial memories. Environment certainly contributes to their behaviour, as do these memories, but humans adapt using them. They are both nature and nurture, a union of the two.

What is interesting is that John isn’t the only person to receive the murderer’s memories, Mr. Hand, one of the aliens, also inserts them into his head. He is the first of the strangers to do so, as they believe that mixing with humans is impure. Unlike John, Mr. Hand immediately becomes predatory and obsessive, the exact traits that the aliens wanted John to exhibit. This makes sense given that the aliens are a collective hive mind, and so they are easily influenced when separated from their group. I picture it like someone whispering in your ear. John hears this whisper and doesn’t know where it is coming from, doesn’t trust it, and doesn’t do as it says because he can still hear himself. Mr. Hand doesn’t have an inner voice, and so he transforms into whatever the whispers, or these memories, tell him to.

Mr. Hand and John are the only hybrids we see in the film, and they treat that hybridity differently. John discovers that he can tune like the aliens, something that lets him alter reality, at least, the appearance of reality. He can move stairs and create doors, but he can’t change people. John doesn’t trust tuning initially, as it puts him in danger, and it makes him similar to these strange figures. Mr. Hand has the opposite reaction, as he still thinks of himself as superior to humans, but he also enjoys hurting and changing them. He could already alter the appearance of reality, but now with these memories, he can alter people’s appearance, by butchering and carving them. Mr. Hand rarely spoke with humans before he had these memories, as the strangers just observe things and reorganize when everyone is asleep. With these memories, however, Mr. Hand becomes too involved, to the point where the colony begins to detach him like some rouge virus. No stranger has ever had emotions, and so Mr. Hand’s union of emotions and tuning is too dangerous.

The aliens try to understand the soul by transforming humans into something like them, some collective pool where everyone has had the same memories at some point. During a conversation between Mr. Hand and Emma, Mr. Hand explains that the stranger’s one-mind is unbearable once you realize that there is something else, a different model of perception. Emma asks if it’s comforting to be surrounded by like people and minds, which translates to; is ignorance bliss when knowledge leads to painful isolation? Mr. Hand passionately believes, for the first time, that ignorance isn’t bliss, that there is something more engaging than repetition. But then the question becomes, can Mr. Hand access that individuality, or is it beyond him?

Take his name, Mr. Hand. Each of the strangers is named after a body part, a lifeless object, or something which has to do with their occupation (Mr. Book). These names suggests that each stranger is a part of a whole body, an alien collective. Their names are not independent, and neither are they. That said, it’s unsurprising that Mr. Hand is the one who becomes fixated with humans, as his name already implies that he is close to humans. The hand is what reaches out and touches, it brings you in proximity to the thing you are touching. It makes sense that you would bring something back with you, that some cross-contamination would occur. It’s also a body part that both the strangers and humans have, and so the symmetry is there.  

“First there was darkness.”

Light and dark play a huge role in the film, which is not surprising, given that it’s called Dark City. When we first encounter the city, we assume that it’s nighttime and that the film is dark because it’s a noir. The noir genre is typically very dark, often shot in black and white, and it deals with murder mysteries and femme fatales. Dark City has both of those, but it changes our perspective on them. The film wants us to assume that the narrative will follow a noir model, which makes its science fiction twist even more surprising and unique. But colour also plays into the film’s ongoing discussion about good and bad, ignorance and knowledge. Let’s talk about good and bad first, as the film complicates that binary just as it complicates its dark tones.

Occasionally, the film focuses on a spot of colour, like lipstick or the blue sky in John’s memory. These moments contrast the rest of the film and make it very apparent that something strange is going on. This world wasn’t meant to be in black and white, there are things and colour going on within those two tones. This suggests two things. First, that the world is not as it seems, and that humans are finding ways to contrast the two-tone definitions given to them. They add colour to the world and thus stand apart from this grisly environment created by the strangers. I refer especially to the red lipstick worn by Emma on stage. Red lipstick is technically part of the noire genre, but it also pierces or interrupts this dark landscape. Second, these colours illustrate that there is a middle ground within this dark environment, that there is still hope for light. We learn that the city is always dark because the aliens cannot stand light, which metaphorically speaking, means that they cannot stand truth or knowledge. This metaphor implies that the aliens will never end their experiment because they will never recognize its results. When John discovers the truth, and liberates some of his companions, he creates light in this world, thus destroying the aliens. He thereby creates two lights: literal sunlight and knowledge of the alien’s interference.

“You wanted to know what it was about us that made us human… [taps head] …You went looking in the wrong place.”

There is one final thing about Dark City which returns to this dilemma around nature versus nurture: the term tuning. Tuning is a technique used by the aliens to ‘tune’ the world and transform it into a new cityscape. This word proposes that cities are an instrument, and we are the sound they make. You can’t tune music; you can only tune the instrument and hope that the music comes out a certain way. After John develops the ability to tune, he takes reality and lets it develop however it will. Perhaps it won’t be as synchronous, but it will be unique, and the instrument will grow and tune alongside its melody. The same goes for the nature versus nurture dynamic, a binary which is never enough to quantify mankind. We are tuned by our city/environment/background but also by ourselves, and I think that is genuinely exciting.