Imagine a city where the sun never rises. As a consequence of an experiment carried out by an alien race known as the Strangers, who are looking for what makes people human, its architecture is a blend of unidentifiable eras and shifts every midnight along with the memories of the population. Dark City is an allegory of urban life that revolves around the value of space and memory as defining variables of identity and the significance of their manipulation by the system in power. Imagine a city where everything is fake, including identities.

An architectural review of Dark City (1998) - Sheet1
The Strangers_©
An architectural review of Dark City (1998) - Sheet2
Dark City Poster_© Warner Bros.Pictures

Neo-noir is a style that was popularized by Alex Proya’s science fiction film “The Dark City ” in

  1. In the film, an ongoing experiment has left the city fully in the dark on purpose. According to Proyas, city life is governed by an oppressive system of ideology that can only be overthrown by being aware of it.


The setting of this neo-noir movie is revealed to be a city floating in space. America in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s is one of several eras and architectural styles that make up its architecture. Due to a mistake made by the Strangers, the movie’s main character wakes up in a bathtub without knowing his name. He just has a postcard of a bright locale called “Shell Beach” and is off to find out who he is.

An architectural review of Dark City (1998) - Sheet3
2_Shell Beach Poster_©

The Strangers, an alien race that lives in the corpses of people, control the metropolis. Every midnight, they change the appearance of the city by imprinting people with false memories and using the psychokinetic technique known as tuning, which is powered by an underground machine. They do this because they need to learn what it is that makes humans human to live and gradually become human themselves. The protagonist’s quest for authenticity is the central theme of the film.


It was stated in the movie’s opening narration that “First came darkness, then came the Strangers.” The movie begins with a panoramic view of the city, reminiscent of Metropolis, with intriguing structures that are part of a created universe, whose hidden workings would be uncovered and destroyed by the imprisoned people’s longing to liberate themselves through their hearts. The destruction of the Western world is symbolized by the machines in the movie, which are presented as menacing and all-powerful.

An architectural review of Dark City (1998) - Sheet4
Stranger’s Home_© Warner Bros. Pictures

Darkness, spirals, and clocks were all prevalent aspects of the production design. There doesn’t seem to be a sun in the city, and spiral patterns that get smaller as you get closer were utilized. The great clock of the Strangers has no numbers. The city architecture was designed by the production designer to coexist organically with the structural components.

Color Palette

There are two distinct types of spaces: one in which the stranger constructs the entire city, and the other in which the main character constructs the city at the very end. The city’s single foundation was laid by strangers using a frigid color scheme. The movie heavily emphasizes the use of black, brown, shadows, and the unattractive aspect of the Strangers. The main character builds a metropolis full of brighter, warmer hues, beaches, and sunlight that contrasts with the dismal surroundings. The Shell Beach billboard, neon signs, and human faces are the only objects in the Stranger’s universe that use warmer tones. To support the idea of the film, warm and cool colors are used in stark contrast.


The dark metropolitan backdrop of the film is created by deep-focus compositions. Strangers control massive clock-like machines that reset people’s minds every midnight in the city’s underground machinery systems. The city is enclosed by above-ground walls; beyond the walls is nothing. Interior spaces usually have length and width. After staring down the first street to its outside vanishing point, the camera pans to look down a second, similarly long street. The lighting is subdued and menacing. Dark City’s ubiquitous spherical window is concave like a fishbowl and can be seen all across the city. The characters don’t reside in the city’s tallest point; rather, the structures that surround their residences dwarf them.

The underground city in Dark City is identical to the one in Metropolis, except the social stratification is reversed: in Metropolis, the rulers are above ground, but in Dark City, they are underground and labor on an assembly line.

An architectural review of Dark City (1998) - Sheet5
The City Outside The Wall_© Warner Bros. Pictures

The Strangers’ Lair – A large underground amphitheater serves as “The Strangers’ lair”, where a sculpture of a human face conceals an enormous clock and a spiraling gadget modifies the city’s above-ground structure. The set for the lair, which was constructed on a fairground in Sydney, Australia, was fifty feet (15 meters) tall when the typical set height is thirty-six feet (11 meters). The set was constructed using low-cost methods, such as stretching canvas over welded metal frames, due to the film’s low budget. A fancy-looking rail vehicle was also present in the lair. The crew used “replaceable elements and strong design textures” to create the illusion that the rail car was passing several rooms, as Proyas had requested, although it was not possible given the budget.

An architectural review of Dark City (1998) - Sheet6
The Stranger’s Liar_© New Line Cinema

Urban Landscape – Dark City highlights its Strangers and the ever-changing urban scene through their act of tuning, which reshapes the city’s architecture and creates fresh memories and personal items such as photo albums from scratch. An artificial reconstruction of urban space and memory with the assistance of technology, resulting in a setting with which individuals are unfamiliar. No one can tell the main character where Shell Beach is or how to get there when he questions the people around him. It is hard for them to adjust to this constant change, and instead of adapting, they atrophy in the face of the built world, resembling Pound’s apparitions.

Frankenstein-like City – According to Proyas in the film’s critique, it is an infinite loop that spirals inwards. The lethargy of traveling round and round in circles with potentially no way out of the urban environment; the existential dread of not being able to return to where you came from. Dark City is a Frankenstein-like city made out of shards and pieces from various cities, movements, and times. A living dead place, a monster city – as the Strangers are undead and terrible – that is reflected in the film’s cuts, which occur almost every two seconds.

Street Scene_© New Line Cinema

True dystopia, like Dark City, is not the opposite of Utopia. Instead, it is a fictitious dystopian city that represents the inherent irrationality of human interactions in urban settings. The dystopian novum is the city, with the shape of the previous tragedy deeply ingrained in its social and architectural features.The abrupt interactions and fleeting impressions of the urban environment are given beautiful expression by Proyas, establishing him as a modern artist. By constructing Dark City and inserting the fictional non-location of Shell Beach, he produced a symbolic palimpsest of memory, experience, and identity: a meaningless, cliché utopia that only exists as a result of the language [or images] used to describe it.


In an artificial environment, the film seeks to find the essence of mankind. Eventually, when people start to question the presence of the monstrous powers, the façade they have built falls apart. The movie’s protagonists are treated as if they were rats trapped in an imaginary maze. The fictitious world in the movie is surrounded by an unending night, its inhabitants are helpless and lost, and there is a pervasive air of sadness about everything and everyone. The scenario has the impression of a 1950s noir movie, yet the historical period is ambiguous due to the mix of vintage furnishings and modern amenities. In addition to cutting-edge technology, we witness automats, vintage and contemporary cars, and fedoras. In terms of crime, despair, and disarray, the facade is more like the city, yet there are indications of exposed artificiality.


  1. Articles

Bhardwaj, N. (2022). An Architectural review of The Dark City. [online] RTF | Rethinking The Future. Available at:

  1. Online Sources

Daskalaki, M. (n.d.). Ideology and the Urban Experience in Alex Proyas Dark City. [online] Available at:


Architect in practice with a desire for new ideas and a distinct design perspective. A meticulous architect who blogs about her poetic experiences. Always willing to take a chance, whether it's tackling a challenge at work or speaking to a friend, a wanderer at heart who carefully observes how people and environments interact to uncover the essence. A critical thinker that enjoys injecting original nuances and novel viewpoints into everything.