In this week's The Vow, Rachel McAdams gets conked on the head, wipes all memories of her previous life, and has to go through the arduous task of being wooed by Channing Tatum all over again-- I know, boo hoo, right? But McAdams is just a tiny part of a long, long cinematic history of amnesiacs, people who lose either their entire memory or some part of it in a way that makes for a pretty gripping story. Amnesia might not be all that common in real life, but if you look at the movies, there are constantly people forgetting about murders in their past, or their past lives, or even that they already know the ending to The Sixth Sense. So to prepare you for the gooey romantic memory loss of The Vow, here are 9 of our favorite cinematic amnesiacs from the past.
The hard-luck story of this movie amnesiac begins off the coast of France in the cold waters of the Mediterranean Sea. There an Italian fishing crew plucks out a strapping but unconscious young man who has two bullets lodged in his back. Yet, when he awakens, he's hardy, aside from having no idea of who he is. Soon he discovers he is fluent in Italian, English, German, and French, skilled at knot-tying and hand-to-hand combat, and possesses top-notch situational awareness. While Jason Bourne's retrograde amnesia makes for an enthralling thriller concept, it is Matt Damon who makes this amnesiac memorable. With each new skill Bourne uncovers, Damon shows a seemingly effortless dexterity, yet his alarmed countenance clues us in to an emotional disconnect to his ingrained survival skills. While his body is in control, he fears he has lost his mind and thereby his very identity. It's a riveting imbalance that makes The Bourne Identity as hard-hitting on an emotional-level as Bourne is on his countless adversaries. Whether single-handedly taking down a highly trained trio of armed assassins, or caring for his accidental accomplice (Franka Potente) by giving her a crucial (and sexually charged!) haircut, Jason Bourne has us totally in his sway.
The Bourne Identity
Like any parent who’s just misplaced a child, Marlin (Albert Brooks) is thrilled to stumble on a witness – Dory, the Blue Tang fish (Ellen DeGeneres) – who saw exactly where the boat carrying young Nemo was heading. The problem? Her ridiculously-short-term memory prevents her from recalling the boat. Or Nemo. Or even Marlin, who is swimming alongside her begging for help. Hollywood often uses amnesia as a dramatic trick: A mystery can not be solved until someone important recalls a vital fact. The beauty of Pixar is the way they turn the trick on its head and play it for comedy. Because Dory can’t remember, she’s always pleasantly surprised by things she’s already encountered. And when Marlin reunites with his lost son, it isn’t quite as cathartic for the audience as when Dory – in a gushing wave of emotional memories – remembers that this little clown fish is the one she has been looking for. The repetitive gimmick of remembering nothing should have grown old, quick. But the combination of DeGeneres’ sunny delivery and Andrew Stanton’s incessantly clever screenplay ensured that Dory’s quirky memory mannerism stayed charming, so long as we just kept swimming, just kept swimming, just kept swimming …
Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall may be the most controversial titles on this list. After all, by the end of the film we’re not really sure if Douglas Quaid has remembered his true identity, traveled to Mars, become an action hero, and saved the planets in habitants or if he is just sitting in Rekall and having a brain vacation implanted. But for the sake of argument, today we are going to go with option A, okay? As cerebral and trippy as the movie is (particularly for a piece of 90s sci-fi action fun), it’s a great story simply because it is absolute wish fulfillment for an audience that is constantly looking back at their humdrum lives and wishing they could be other people. What if one day you discovered that you have been living a lie without your own knowledge and are, in fact, a special agent who has to take down an evil Mars administrator depriving his people of air? Quaid is one of those rare characters where you can relate to his entire life, but also idolize (it doesn’t hurt that he looks like a 1990 version of Arnold Schwarzenegger either).
Another tale of amnesia prompted by a man overboard situation is the zany romantic comedy Overboard, which stars real-life lovebirds Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. Before she slipped off her husband's luxury yacht and into a severe case of short-term memory loss, Joanne Stayton (Hawn) was a bored, "rich bitch" with an excess of money and free time trapped in a loveless marriage. But after, Elk Cove's local yokel Dean Proffitt (Russell), a widower she burned financially and threw overboard literally, sees her sneering at reporters on the evening news, he decides to pick her up and convince her that she's his loving wife as well as mother to his four rambunctious boys. Now she's Annie Proffitt, "a short fat slut," who lives in a ramshackle house overrun by slobbering hound dogs and prank-pulling rascals. All she has retained from her former life is a smug sense of entitlement and a bad attitude. But Proffitt's wacky revenge unexpectedly gives her a chance to grow and bring her happenstance husband along with her into maturity to form a happy family! Still, it's Annie's highbrow snobbery mixed with her impoverished predicament that makes for some unforgettably funny movie moments.
I have to imagine that the worst part of amnesia would be if a part of your brain was able to recognize the dramatic change in your habits and constantly give you feelings of emptiness and longing for a different life. This is the pain of Charly Baltimore in the Shane Black-scripted, Renny Harlin-directed The Long Kiss Goodnight. But while a normal person might have a voice in their head telling them that they don’t cook as much as they used to or have as much fun, the voice in Charly’s head tells her kick some terrorist ass. As a memory loss story, what makes The Long Kiss Goodnight such an awesome movie is Geena Davis. At the beginning of the film she is as we always see her, with her long flowing, curly, red hair and a bright smile. But when she cuts off her locks and goes blonde, we know immediately that she’s entered badass mode. Few actresses have the range to believably make a transition like that, but Davis does it flawlessly. In fact, it makes it all the more depressing that she never took on an action role again because she could have easily been the 90s Angelina Jolie.
The Long Kiss Goodnight
Many of the movies you’ve read about here deal with long term memory loss – the hard drive getting wiped clean without a backup disc. Christopher Nolan’s Memento plays a different game entirely. While Leonard Shelby knows who he is and remembers his childhood, his problem is that he is unable to create any new memories, leaving him lost in the world every five minutes or so and relying on polaroids and tattoos to answer his questions. But it’s not just the characters, the story and the treatment of memory loss that’s so fascinating, but the film’s structure. Told entirely in reverse and broken up by the limits of Leonard’s memory, Memento is one of the greatest uses of non-linear story telling in the history of the artform. While it may confuse some first-time viewers, particularly those unprepared for its style, the film flawlessly tells a story that is as fascinating in reverse as it is going forward. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker the movie would have been a structural mess, but Nolan’s steady hand perfectly paces the story as we jump back and forth and remain completely absorbed. It’s the closest we’ll ever come to a cinematic palindrome and it is fascinating.
As we come to know Lucy Whitmore (Drew Barrymore) through the budding romance she has with Adam Sandler’s Henry Roth, what becomes clear is that she is loved. Each morning Lucy wakes up thinking it’s her father’s birthday because, on that October day months prior, she and her father were in a car accident that damaged her brain, resulting in her losing her memory each night as she sleeps. Rather than forcing her to relive the disappointment in learning every day that she can no longer retain so much as a day’s worth of memory past the point of the accident, her family reenacts the same day over and over. With a story like this, you wonder why anyone would go to such lengths (which include watching and pretending to be surprised by The Sixth Sense every single day) for one person. The answer becomes clear as we get to know Lucy. She’s kind and funny and giving, and truly worthy of the efforts her friends and family, and eventually Henry make for the sake of her happiness. She may never get her memory back, but that doesn't mean she won't have a happy life.
50 First Dates
We think of amnesia as being this hugely common occurrence in film noir of the past, but that's not really true-- plenty of private eyes got bonked on the head and taken to a new location by the bad guys, but it was relatively rare to have an amnesiac as your star, sorting together his or her life and solving a crime in the process. So for his 1991 neo-noir and Hollywood tribute Dead Again, Kenneth Branagh wasn't just changing up the noir format with talk of past lives, but with Emma Thompson's heroine "Grace," who doesn't even remember her own real name but recalls the details of the life of a woman named Margaret Strauss, who was murdered in the glamorous 1940s. Dead Again is a goofy movie, to be sure, but it commits to Grace's amnesia and her remembrances of the past in the way you might expect from Branagh-- it's not all that different from how he made the Rainbow Bridge feel real in Thor. And Thompson, acting opposite her real-life husband, plays Grace as a gumshoe committed to the case because she's got no other choice, making her confusion both funny and crucial to investing in the movie. Dead Again now feels dated and its symbolism is truly over the top, but with major acting talents like Derek Jacobi, Branagh and especially Emma Thompson on board, it's still undeniably fun to help Grace solve the mystery of her own identity.
Joel and Clementine
Forgetting old loves is both painful and impossible, even if you go to the trouble of having those people surgically removed from your brain. The high-flying sci-fi concept in Charlie Kaufman's script for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind allows us to follow the love story of two people, Joel and Clementine, as they both remember each other and have those memories erased; as directed by the wizard-like Michel Gondry, we see those memories literally disappear, and flash forward to Joel and Clementine after the fact, drawn to each other on a beach in Montauk without really knowing why. The story's dizzying structure is held together by the very real emotion of both wanting to forget something and wanting to hang on to it; Joel and Clementine don't remember each other but keep unknowingly hitting on routines from their previous lives, and the more we know about them that they don't, we root for their romance even when knowing perfectly well why it went wrong. Joel and Clementine are the rare movie amnesiacs about whom the audience knows far more than they know about themselves, but it's what we know and what they've forgotten that makes their story so powerful.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The Bourne Identity
The Long Kiss Goodnight
50 First Dates
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind