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Reminiscing About Memory Loss in Movies

Do you know who you are?
When were you born? What year is it? Well, even if you can’t answer these
queries, hopefully you can still read, because Player Affinity will now take you through memory
loss tropes in film. Memory loss, mistaken identity and amnesia-themed films
are a convenient plot device, a crutch even, when filmmakers are looking for a
quick way to materialize some danger, progress the zaniness of a rom-com, or
craft a psychological thriller. Unknown,
starring Liam Neeson, falls within some common trends in the genre as it finds a man who after awakening from a coma tries to piece together the
truth of his immediate past while his entire existence is seemingly stolen
from around him.

The “I have mad skills but don’t know how I got them” memory
loss scenario
As Seen In: The “Bourne” films, Paycheck, Oldboy

Don’t we all wish we could
wake up one morning (oblivious to our identity mind you), but be graced with a
photographic memory, superhuman reflexes and survival skills that would put
Bear Grylls to shame? This plot devise is a staple of a number of action flicks
where in a sudden manner our hero awakes in is immediately thrust into a
harrowing scenario. Cornered, he pulls from his secret bank of ninja-esque
tricks the necessary skills to make his escape. A conspiracy is always afoot in
this style of memory loss offering, usually a shadowy corrupt organization able
to devote their sole resources to tracking our on-the-lam protagonist. When
done well (as with the “Bourne” trilogy), this can make for compelling
storytelling, but when done cornily (Paycheck) it can easily drag down
even the most adrenaline-soaked entries.


The “my memory loss is resulting in unintentional
hilarity” scenario
As Seen In: 50 First Dates,
Overboard, Desperately Seeking Susan

Ohh romantic comedies,
have you no shame? About as Soap Opera as you can get (not a compliment people)
using the ol’ amnesia gimmick to
fashion outlandish scenarios is dipping towards the deepest dredges of the
genre. When handled sweetly as with the Adam Sandler vehicle
50 First Dates, the results can be
tolerable, but with horrendously shrill offerings like
Overboard, saying this specific scenario incites hilarity may be
too kind a declaration. Really, this plot instrument is a spin on the
fish-out-of-water tale, just instead of the person traveling away, just their
mind does. This sets the stage for misunderstandings and awkward encounters, but really at this point it seems like I may just be describing all modern rom-coms.


The “I am now a better person as a result of memory
loss” scenario
As Seen In: The Majestic, Eternal
Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Consistently the most
earnest use of the “?” maneuver, using calamity to spur epiphany has been a
staple of films stretching back to the era of Frank Capra. Memory loss
specifically in the context of a Shakespearian tragedy works more often than
using it as a device to have someone crash their car or burn a cake. “Eternal
Sunshine” is an achingly beautiful example of why it is called memory
loss, and even in the overly
The Majestic, director
Frank Darabont puts his own heart in the right place. In many ways we wish some
sort of phenomenon could strike us that would make change as easy as it looks
in the movies. These bittersweet depictions are rare as the gimmick is not
juicy as when employed in a broad comedy, though it is strange to note both of
these films star the king of broad comedy: Jim Carrey.


The “I have woken up with amnesia and have no idea
what’s going on” scenario
As Seen In: Dark CityMemento, Pandorum

Similar to our first
category in many ways but one, this final genre trope finds our hero awakening
into a world of peril and mystery, but with few tools at their disposal. Here,
they must fight against the odds in a world
odds to uncover the truth. These films are dark and brooding, noir-inspired
pieces that often exhibit horror elements and while the most famous of these,
Memento does not boast the latter
aspect, it is a heavy blend of genres which all culminate in one of the great
modern mindbenders. The use of memory loss here tends to work better than most
as it is not a one-note plot gimmick but more a part of the atmosphere that helps
to construct and enforce the scenario itself. Sometimes approach means

Just how many of these scenarios Unknown will fall under remains to be seen, but starting tomorrow you can check it out and decide whether it was memorable or forgettable.

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