Code 46, Dark City, Metropolis

Texture is important.

These three movies have very little to do with each other, except that they are set in imaginary societies where people’s freedoms are curtailed in ways we would find objectionable, and they were all at the video store at the same time as I was looking for Futuristic Dystopias to study.  And I suppose you could say that all three have male leads who are very good actors but stop short of being movie stars.

(Incidentally, if there’s one thing all nightmare futures have in common, its that they all predict less freedom for their citizens.  Why won’t anyone make a movie about a nightmare future where everyone has too much freedom?  Well, I suppose that’s Idiocracy, actually.)

For my purposes here, they also all point to the importance of texture in this kind of movie.  I know this from Blade Runner, but Ridley Scott knew it from Metropolis.  If you get it wrong, your dark, futurist nightmare dates quickly, feels constrained and silly.  If you get it right, the texture makes the movie worth watching all by itself.

The Man Who Fell to Earth, for instance, is an example of a movie with a lot on its mind, but very little effort is spent on making us believe we are seeing the future.  The Island, meanwhile, has expended tons of effort in bringing us a vision of the future, but has very little on its mind.


The future of Code 46 seems completely plausible, almost here already.  The cars are the same cars we drive now and the buildings are the same ones we work in.  Apartments are smaller and have computer screens built into glass walls, and some quirky new words have worked their way into the language (like “papelle” and “cover” and “outside”), but there have been no radical leaps forward in fashion or architecture.  Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton meet and fall in love and that creates problems for them, but none of the weird things they have in their lives feel any more novel to them as computers and cell phones seem to us.  Designer “viruses” are just a part of their everyday life, along with “new fingers” and “memory albums” and the remote possibility of having sex with the clone of one’s mother.  Director Michael Winterbottom even has the actors pitch their dialogue in a rushed murmur so that we have to lean forward to catch what they’re saying.  It doesn’t feel like a movie about the future, it feels like a movie from the future, in the same way that Barry Lyndon feels like a movie about the 18th century made in the 18th century.

Dark City is a, well, it’s a weird movie.  A bunch of aliens have abducted a bunch of Earthlings and built a pretend city for them in the middle of space so they can study them and learn about the human soul.  For some reason, they’ve decided to make the city a Fake New York circa 1940s.  At the end of every day, the aliens stop time and rearrange the city, along with everyone’s lives, then start up time again to see how people react.  Rufus Sewell is an Earthling who, for whatever reason, cottons to the aliens’ plan and finds himself able to rearrange physical matter his own self.  (The movie is so weird that telling you all this doesn’t really even give anything away — all this is revealed within Act I.)  The texture here is overstuffed, overheated, delirious.   Cityscapes are obviously, unapologetically miniatures or computer-generated, doorways melt or appear out of nowhere, leading to streets, outer space or plunges.  Furniture stretches, walls expand, dishes and tchotchkes appear out of nowhere.  Streets are too narrow and lead to nowhere, everything feels like a movie set, which is partly the point.  It all works toward creating a sense that anything might happen.  Sort of funhouse version of The Matrix.

Metropolis is still the gold standard for this kind of movie.  The sets and effects, mind-blowing for their time, are still mind-blowing 80 years later.  The plot makes as much sense as Dark City, with the same kind of delirium present as well, but also carries with it a Serious Message about class warfare.  The son of an industrialist falls in love with a mysterious crusader and learns about the sorry life of the workers who make Metropolis run.  The industrialist father, wishing to put the woman’s crusade to an end, asks a scientist friend to give his newly-created robot the face of the crusader, then train the robot to go and tell the workers to give up.  The scientist has his own personal vendetta against the industrialist and gives the robot-woman instructions to get the workers to revolt against the city thus provoking an apocolypse that threatens to kill the workers’ children, start a revolution and kill the industrialist’s son.  With a plot like that, the visuals better be pretty fantastic, and Metropolis does not disappoint; it’s stuffed full of gigantic, complex sets with swelling tides of humanity coursing through them.  And the special-effects aren’t impressive “for their time,” they’re impressive for, say, 1977.   The effect is incalcuable.  The mighty cityscapes with their elevated walkways, spotless streets and canyon-like vantages give an impression of overwhelming inhumanity while still maintaining their beauty and power.

(The theme of Metropolis, stated many times throughout, is “The Head and Hands must have a Mediator, which must be the Heart.”  Lang doesn’t seem to be arguing that the upper class is bad, just that they need to keep in touch with the lower class who make their machines run and maybe don’t be so cruel to them.  Otherwise they seem to be perfectly nice people.)

The current Kino Video release is also the most complete assemblage of film elements of this movie and a near-complete restoration, and the results are jaw-dropping.  The print looks brand-new, scratchless, spotless, bright and lustrous.  As an added bonus, the score of the original run has been re-recorded, the goal being to present the movie as close as possible to its original premiere.  I’ve seen Metropolis before, but this felt like a completely different movie.
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9 Responses to “Code 46, Dark City, Metropolis”
  1. craigjclark says:

    I was fortunate enough to see the restored version of Metropolis when it was re-released in theaters several years back. It was such a revelation it turned me into an instant Fritz Lang fan. Since then, I’ve seen 23 of the 33 films he directed (34 if you count his Indian Epic as two).

    • Todd says:

      And what are your favorites? I’ve only seen Metropolis, M and Testament of Dr. Mabuse.

      • craigjclark says:

        Those are my favorites, but I can also recommend Fury (his first American film), Hangmen Also Die, Ministry of Fear, Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street, and The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (his last film, which he returned to Germany to make). I know some critics like The Big Heat as well, but that one left me rather cold. And Rancho Notorious is one of the strangest westerns you’ll ever see this side of Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns.

        Oh, yes. And when I was counting I forgot Liliom, which he made in France between Testament and Fury, so that makes 34 films overall.

        • Todd says:

          Ah yes, I have seen Ministry of Fear. It was fine but I found it strangely un-Lang-ian, rather mainstream Hollywoody if I remember correctly.

          • craigjclark says:

            I liked it for Ray Milland’s performance and Lang’s pervasive use of clock imagery. There are much worse examples of Lang’s identity being subverted by Hollywood standards. (Cloak and Dagger and American Guerrilla in the Philippines are two titles that immediately come to mind.) If anything, Ministry of Fear was Hollywood’s attempt to make Lang over as another Hitchcock.

          • craigjclark says:

            Just got TCM’s December schedule

            If you want to see more Lang, check out Turner Classic Movies on December 5. Starting at 8 a.m., they’re showing The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Fury, Clash By Night (based on a Clifford Odets play), Rancho Notorious, The Blue Gardenia, Moonfleet and Beyond A Reasonable Doubt. That’s one heaping helping of Lang. (It’s just too bad I’ve already seen all those.)

            Oh, wow. And they’re showing The Honeymoon Killers on TCM Underground the night of the 8th. And Richard Lester’s It’s Trad, Dad! on the 29th! Holy crap! Do you have any idea how much I’ve been wanting to see that? (It’s the only Lester film apart from Royal Flash that I’ve never seen.)

  2. divalea says:

    Funny, we were just last night watching Dark City (which I love), and I told me daughter that it owed its visual style to Metropolis. (And I think it owes some of its moral heart, as well.)

    Yes, DC is freaking weird, but there’s actually something more to it than the kick and the splode of The Matrix.

  3. Anonymous says:

    dark city

    For some reason, they’ve decided to make the city a Fake New York circa 1940s.

    I just assumed it was set in the 40s.

    Maybe because the director loves automats and hates cell phones?