Spotless Hero
Journey Through Movie Memory In These 7 Films
The Academy

The world of Reminiscence is set in a not-so-unrecognizable dystopian future. As Hugh Jackman reflects in the movie’s trailer, there’s not a lot to look forward to. So, people begin to look back.

That’s exactly what his character Nick Bannister helps them do. As a “private investigator of the mind,” he plugs customers into extraction pods that recover their lost memories. But when the extracted memories of a new client, Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), trigger a mysterious, interrelated sequence of his own, the lonely Nick quickly becomes intoxicated by the (real? imagined?) prospect of their love connection. He always warns his clients that nothing is more addictive than the past, and Nick experiences that firsthand as his obsession with Mae spirals out of control.

Nick wouldn’t be the only character in movie history to have a complicated relationship with the past. So subjective and sensory, memory has been a prime playground for the movies, a boundless creative landscape that some of the very best filmmakers have trod again and again. As we gear up for the release of Reminiscence, we’re remembering a few of our favorite memory-focused mind-benders.

Blade Runner (1982) & Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Blade Runner
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In the bleak, postnuclear world jointly conjured by Ridley Scott and Denis Villeneuve across decades, memory is an unreliable thing. Just because you have vivid, recurring flashbacks doesn’t necessarily mean they’re real … or that you’re human. The Tyrell Corporation has flooded space colonies with bioengineered humanoid robots—“replicants”—some of whom defect, escaping to Earth to build regular lives and identities around their implanted memories. As blade runners, Deckard (Harrison Ford) and K (Ryan Gosling) are hitmen hired to “retire” these defectors by any means necessary. But along the way, each has unsettling encounters with their targets, and uncovers memories that rock their own identities.

Inside Out
Inside Out
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Memories are foundational to identity in Pixar’s Inside Out, too—so much so that when 11-year-old Riley forgets an important one, entire parts of her developing internal psyche crumble into a dark abyss. That’s exactly what the emotions inside her—Joy, Fear, Disgust, Anger and Sadness—are desperately trying to prevent. But as Riley’s family relocates from Minnesota to San Francisco and leaves an old life behind, the five feelings struggle to guide Riley through the transition and toward new memories. Made for kids and grown-ups alike (a classic Pixar move), the movie is an emotional intelligence crash course, as it explores how feelings can—quite literally—color our memories.

After Life

If you could take only one memory with you after you die, which one would you choose? Hirokazu Kore-eda asked more than 500 people that question, and their answers shaped After Life, his tender and reflective movie venture. In it, those who’ve recently passed are kept in an in-between, otherworldly lodge, unable to proceed to the great beyond until they’ve chosen the one memory they’ll take with them. Existential caseworkers are assigned to each guest, helping them review and select a prime memory. But things get especially meta—and interesting—when a staff member recognizes people from his own life in the memories of a recently deceased old man.

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Although Vertigo finds its characters often climbing to new heights, the movie keeps its feet firmly grounded in the present—that is, until *mild spoiler alert* private investigator Scottie (James Stewart) mourns the sudden loss of his lover Madeleine (Kim Novak). After the deadly incident, he sees remnants of her everywhere in San Francisco. And when a woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Madeleine crosses his path, Scottie becomes desperate to re-create fond memories, asking her to dye her hair and change her clothes. There’s no sci-fi or fantasy at play in this classic, just the potent and paralyzing nature of nostalgia. And the fact that Hitchcock casts his signature spell of suspense over Vertigo certainly doesn’t hurt either.

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In Vertigo, Detective Scottie might be rattled from acrophobia and a fixation on the past, but at least his memory works. In Memento, however, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) has a tougher time as an investigator—his frequent short-term memory loss constantly resets progress on his quest to find the man who killed his wife. With this condition, it’s impossible to make new memories and build relationships, let alone move a case forward. To make matters even more mind-bending, the movie unfolds forward in black-and-white and backward in color, as Leonard zeroes in on some kind of truth there in the middle.

Fun fact: Memory play is all in the family. This early Christopher Nolan movie is based on a short story by his brother Jonathan, who, at the movie’s premiere, met and later married Lisa Joy, the director of Reminiscence. Even more? The producers of Memento are sisters: Suzanne and (eventual Oscars producer and Academy Governor) Jennifer Todd.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
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In Reminiscence, people look to technology to help them remember the past. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) use it to forget. After a bitter fight, the couple undergoes memory erasure procedures, leaving all trace of the relationship behind. But fate might find a way, as the two blank slates bump into each other again at a train station. Unaware of their shared past, they unintentionally explore what it’s like to make old memories new again. An inventive blend of sci-fi, rom-com and drama, it’s no surprise the movie won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

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