What were we talking about? Oh yes, amnesia. While this trope is usually associated with soap operas, it has been used in a variety of diverse formats and for a variety of different reasons. Sometimes the effect can be used for humorous purposes, much like the plot of 50 First Dates (2004). More often than not, amnesia is used to make the protagonist more relatable to the audience. Everything the main character re-learns is new information to the audience. In fact, this trope is typically used to not only provide lengthy exposition but to also give the plot a good twist at the end. If anything, amnesia can make characters more dynamic: acting one way as they regain their memories, then having to make the decision to either revert to their former life or pick up their new one once they learn the truth. This week’s two films highlight amnesia as a plot device.
Length: 85 minutes / 1.42 hours
The largest appeal of amnesia as a plot device is the erasure of any memories the main character would have that would bias their decision-making process. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000). The little hints the main character gives himself to avenge his wife’s death only act to propel him into an unintentional bias that drives him to vengeance. While Memento covers a medical condition, temporary amnesia has its uses as a plot device as well. When key memories fall into place for temporary amnesiacs, the plot is driven forward by the exciting revelations. Films like Total Recall (1990) and Unknown (2011) hide assassins in plain sight. However, when the entire cast of characters contracts temporary amnesia, figuring out who’s who and each individual’s alliances makes for exceptional drama.
Not to be confused with the Liam Neeson film of the same name, Unknown (2006) starts with a group of men regaining consciousness and trying to figure out why they’re locked in an abandoned warehouse. They also need to deduce why one of them was tied up, another shot, and why the rest of them have other, various injuries. Slowly, they begin to piece together that they are part of a failed kidnapping due to an accidental chemical leak that put them in a temporary coma and erased their memories. As their memories return, each individual realizes they’re either a kidnapper or the kidnapped. When the mafia returns to unlock the warehouse, they proceed to eliminate the witnesses, not knowing that one of the individuals has just remembered his actual job: acting as an undercover cop to infiltrate the mob.
The Bourne Identity
Length: 119 minutes / 1.98 hours
Memories are the moments that define our lives. We are who we are via the collected memories of our lives. These memories shape us and inform our decisions in life. If memories are erased, an individual can be molded into almost anyone. If a government has the ability to erase memories, they can create docile and obedient soldiers, much like was seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). Of course, memories are much easier to erase when they’re part of a cybernetic interface. Films like Robocop (1987) and Ghost in the Shell (2017) show this digital memory erasure still comes with some problems, though. But what if a well-trained super soldier loses their memories? Would they continue to call upon their ingrained training, being able to perform all their duties without knowing how they got that way? Would they continue to kill without knowing why?
After an unidentified man is found floating in the Mediterranean by some local fishermen, he only has one clue to his identity: a safe deposit box in Switzerland. While he doesn’t know who he is, he does retain a plethora of useful skills. Opening the box in Zurich, the man learns he has multiple cover identities and opts to use the one of Jason Bourne (Matt Damon). Unfortunately, his presence is soon identified, and he has to run away, mostly unsure why he is being chased. As he comes in contact with more people from his past, he learns that he was a highly-trained assassin and part of Operation Treadstone. Because he carries no memories of his time as a CIA black ops operative, he decides he’s better off cutting ties with Treadstone. Unfortunately, Treadstone does not want to lose an asset as valuable as Jason Bourne and will fight him to bring him back into the program.
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 awesome amnesias