Maybe it would take a scientist, too excited about his invention to be realistic about its uses, to believe that a device allowing perfect access to buried memories would best be used to reconnect users with their most painful ones. That agenda (more or less) gets inventor Gordon Dunn (Martin Donovan) killed in Mark Palansky’s Rememory, a good-looking mystery whose sci-fi elements take a back seat to meditations on guilt and deception. Peter Dinklage delivers a soulful lead perf that will attract fans’ attention, suggesting better (though still limited) commercial prospects than Palansky’s only previous feature, 2006’s Penelope, which went unloved by critics and ticket-buyers alike.
Dinklage is Sam Bloom, an architectural-model builder who years ago survived a wreck that killed his rock-star brother (Matt Ellis). Guilt-plagued, he’s especially sorry that he can’t remember the final words his brother mumbled as he died. No wonder that he takes interest in Dunn’s newly announced invention, attending a pre-launch event and, when he overhears a dispute between Dunn and Wendy, a woman who participated in the product’s tests (Evelyne Brochu), seeing if he can learn more. When Dunn winds up dead, Sam knows things the police don’t, and decides to steal the Rememory device, both for his own purposes and to find the killer.
This requires him to befriend Dunn’s widow (Julia Ormond, convincing in her complicated grief), pretending to be an old friend of the scientist; scenes between the two, which have nearly nothing to do with the sci-fi conceit, are some of the film’s most persuasively emotional moments. But they’re just the jumping-off point for Sam’s detective campaign (no coincidence, surely, that he shares a name with Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade), which will have him interrogating Wendy and other participants in the Rememory project, including a mechanic played by Anton Yelchin. (Yelchin also appears posthumously in this year’s Next section entry Thoroughbred.)
Despite its obviously strong philosophical and emotional interest in the nature of memory, the picture is most satisfying as a whodunit, observing Dinklage’s deeply empathetic interviews with those who’ve been wounded, not helped, by a procedure that was meant to be therapeutic. When it comes to the device itself, the film shares the blinkered perspective of its fictional scientist, underexploring some elements that might have raised the stakes in both genre and intellectual terms. For instance, users complain that the brain-link process has disturbing after-effects, like hallucinations and a collapsing sense of time; when Sam starts using it, though, visions of his dead brother are less disturbing than they might be.
Also, there’s the invention itself. If Dunn found a way to use a simple headset to extract memories, why wouldn’t he play them back the same way — with full-sensory broadcast straight into the brain (a la 1983’s Brainstorm), instead of on a screen smaller than an iPad, which makes memories look like ordinary home movies?
The deepest thematic concern of the film is perhaps the least explored: the likelihood that a person using this device would choose to delete painful memories rather than continuing to be tortured by them. Only in the final scenes do we witness someone acting on this impulse, and we don’t get to see the decision’s ultimate impact. Dialogue suggests what most of us would assume: that humans are better off coming to terms with the past than erasing it. But Rememory, engrossing as it sometimes is, makes that point in ways that ultimately don’t require science fiction.
Production companies: Great Point Media, First Point Entertainment, Scythia Films
Cast: Peter Dinklage, Julia Ormond, Martin Donovan, Anton Yelchin, Henry Ian Cusick, Evelyn Brochu
Director: Mark Palansky
Screenwriters: Michael Vukadinovich, Mark Palansky
Producers: Dan Bekerman, Lee Clay
Executive producers: Robert Halmi Jr., Jim Reeve, Mark Palansky, Mike Vukadinovich
Director of photography: Greg Middleton
Production designer: Hank Mann
Costume designer: Patricia Hargreaves
Editors: Tyler Nelson, Jane Macrae
Composer: Gregory Tripi
Casting director: Tineka Becker
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)