Of all the demands we make of stories, surely this is the most common. Children still learning to read ask their parents to turn the page and tell them what happens to Curious George or the Cat in the Hat. Ask that question enough times, however, and other questions begin to come forward. Stories begin to seem like they’re keeping secrets, hiding more than they reveal, causing intrepid audience members to wonder: What happened before? What were these characters doing before the story began? What made them who they are?
There’s a narrative technique designed to address such questions. It’s usually called backstory, and it pops up everywhere in the current media landscape. Anytime a story stops progressing in the standard linear fashion to jump back in time and show how one or more of the characters acted before the story proper began, that’s backstory. A character’s past ends up accounting for her present actions, an event from childhood (more often than not traumatic), serving as a key that unlocks the mysterious aspects of her personality. Films that deploy backstory often work like algebraic equations, waiting until the last possible moment to reveal the property of x and thus solve the narrative, every element in balance.
Perhaps the contemporary genre that calls upon backstory to bolster its plot most frequently is the big budget superhero movie. Bruce Wayne’s parents killed by a mugger, Superman’s parents killed when the planet Krypton exploded, Peter Parker’s uncle/parental figure murdered by a thief; these are the primal traumas that compel their protagonists to don multicolored costumes and battle injustice. Soon every last character in the DC and Marvel multiverses will have their own backstories elaborated in standalone films, a level of density to rival Balzac’s Human Comedy, the fictional account of 19th century France that unfolded over dozens of volumes.
But what are the limits of backstory? Can it obscure a character’s essence in the effort to illuminate it? To answer that question, let’s talk about aliens.
Humans are trapped. But they don’t know it. Each day they go about their lives, commuting to work and eating cheeseburgers, unaware that mysterious men in black suits are directing their every move. An experiment is under way, and we are the subjects. One day, a hero appears, a young man who can wield the same power as the men in black, and he uses his newfound abilities to fight back and put humanity in charge of its destiny once again.
The Matrix? Not quite. In the late ‘90s, with pre-millennial tension thick in the air, there was a spate of movies depicting characters trapped within simulated environments of one sort or another. Joshua Clover, in his critical study of The Matrix, elaborated on the preoccupations of these films. Describing that film’s famous scene where Cypher sits in front of the computer monitors and shows Neo the code that underlies the Matrix, Clover writes:
Standing there before the grungy panoply of displays isn’t truly the moment of revelation. It is, rather, the moment in which the hero sees the simulation as nothing more (and nothing less) than what it is, recognizes the limited apparatus of what he once thought was infinite reality. What the hero sees in this moment, we might call “The Edge of the Construct.” Indeed we could apply that name to the microgenre itself, insofar as each story revolves around variations of this scene.
Other “Edge of the Construct” films from this exact era include The Truman Show, whose hero is the unwitting star of what today would be called a reality television show, and The Thirteenth Floor, wherein a scientist creating a Sim City-like program finds that he himself is a character within a larger sim program. Perhaps the strangest entry in this idiosyncratic field was Dark City, written and directed by Alex Proyas, the Egyptian-born Australian filmmaker. (Proyas’s career has consisted of equal parts success and setback: His first effort, The Crow, was a distinctive action flick that unfortunately is best known for the death of its star, Brandon Lee, son of Bruce, during an accident on set. His most recent film is Gods of Egypt, whose poor reviews were matched by its low box office receipts.) Released in 1998, a full year before The Matrix, Dark City takes many of the same premises as the Wachowskis’ blockbuster but follows them into territory that is far more literary, you could say, examining themes of memory, character, and fate. And I promise, I am getting to the aliens.
Dark City opens as John Murdoch, played by Rufus Sewell, wakes up in the bathtub of a seedy hotel room. He doesn’t know how he got there. Not only that, he doesn’t know who he is. He examines the room and finds he’s not alone: a dead woman lies on the floor, brutally murdered. Just then, he receives a phone call from a certain Dr. Schreber, played by Kiefer Sutherland. He knows that Murdoch is confused, and tells him that he can help. Murdoch hangs up and leaves the hotel, walking through a cityscape straight out of 1940s film noir: steam billowing out of sewer grates, all-night automats populated by drunks and call girls. He looks through his pockets, searching for clues about his identity. He finds a wallet containing a driver’s license, providing him with a name at last, as well as something more disturbing: newspaper clippings that detail the crimes of a killer who’s been prowling the streets, murdering prostitutes. Is he the killer? Perhaps more to the point, do others think he is?
As Murdock continues to investigate the gaps in his memory, he encounters a group of pale, sallow-skinned men wearing fedoras and trench coats. These are the Strangers, and they have the ability to alter the physical nature of reality, creating doors out of otherwise blank walls, making buildings rise out of the ground like enormous mushrooms. This ability is called “tuning,” and Murdock seems to possess it in some measure, as evidenced by a fight with the Strangers on a fire escape where he evades capture by causing the beams of the scaffolding to fall apart without even touching them. When he finally tracks down Dr. Schreber, he learns the true nature of the world he’s taken for granted.
The Strangers are aliens from an unknown world, and the city is not a city at all, but a ship traveling through space. Every 12 hours, the Strangers bring this world to a standstill, causing everyone to fall into a deep sleep while they rearrange the city. And not just the city—they rearrange memories as well, transferring them among people, giving these imprisoned citizens entirely new identities every night, and then watching things unfold. Murdock was in the middle of one of these memory transferences, a procedure involving a steampunkish syringe injected directly into the brain, when his tuning ability activated, casting the syringe across the room and leaving his mind blank.
Why are the Strangers doing this? Because they are dying, Schreber tells Murdoch. They are a collective species with a unified hive-memory and, for reasons that the film leaves unexplained, their civilization is on the verge of collapse. Human nature holds the key to their survival, they believe, and their method for unlocking its mysteries is switching memories around like so many software programs to discern the underlying operating system. As part of their effort to decode the more extreme aspects of humanity, the Strangers wanted to turn Murdoch into a serial killer, allowing them to observe his behavior as he murdered the city’s women. To do this, they created a memory that involved his wife cheating on him, believing this would serve as the proper motivation to become a murderer.
The Strangers are, in short, writers. The residents of the city are their characters, and they wind them up like toys, backstories serving as the keys slotted into their backs. Then they let them go and see what happens. It is only when they fail to implant Murdoch with the serial killer backstory that he begins to question the nature of his own existence, and the city’s as a whole. Without a backstory, Murdoch becomes a character whose motivation is to uncover the mystery of existence, to find the storytellers who have been controlling his fate and take it back from them.
At the film’s climax, after Murdoch has vanquished the Strangers and regained control of the city, he tells the last remaining Stranger that they “went looking in the wrong place” in their search for human nature, indicating his heart instead of his head as he says so. A little on the nose, maybe, but the point stands that using backstory as a device meant to give characters depth often has the effect of reducing them to automatons, efficient little narrative devices that always do what their creators want them to. In this light, Dark City begins to look like a critique of filmmakers who are overly reliant on the device, forcing their characters through the machinations of the plot.
All of this begs the question: what would a less mechanistic, more open-ended use of backstory look like? What purposes would it serve?
An example that comes to mind is Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. That film is awash in backstory, starting with Sean Penn in the present day as an architect, jumping back to his childhood in 1950s Texas, and then bounding all the way to the creation of the universe and the first stirrings of life on Earth. Watching Malick use backstory in ways that most filmmakers would dismiss as impossible is like watching a cyclist racing in a Formula One competition, and winning.
What makes the backstories in that film so effective is that they don’t explain or dispel mysteries, but deepen them. It’s not an equation whose components are solved by the progress of the story, but an experience that unfolds before the viewer’s eyes. Backstory is just memory, after all, and memory is the most mysterious substance there is.