Embers – Mike Miley

Mike Miley teaches literature at Metairie Park Country Day School and film studies at Loyola University New Orleans. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Bright Lights Film Journal, Critique, Film International, Moving Image Source, Music & the Moving Image, The New Orleans Review, and The Smart Set. You can follow him on Twitter – @mikecmiley

Embers

It was a Tuesday. It had to be.

I can’t remember where I sat, but I know it was in an oversized faux-leather recliner at one of those fancy dine-in “luxury” movie theaters. I shoved flatbread into my mouth in the dark. I think it had some toppings on it. I don’t really remember much about it. I was hungry, then I wasn’t.

The film I remember well, or at least better. The film was Embers (2015), and it’s the feature-directing debut of Claire Carré. That’s a name you’ll want to remember. She co-wrote it with another person, a man, his name is Charles I think. That sounds right. It’s all so hard to keep straight.

I could have written these things down while I was watching the film or Googled them as I typed this, but I wanted to tell you about this film based upon what I remember from one viewing.

You see, the film’s about memory, or, more accurately, forgetting.

Embers is set in the not-so-distant (or all-too-close) future, and the people left on Earth—there are not many—have lost their memories. They have forgotten everything: names, places, relationships (there are other things too, but I’m fuzzy on that). As if that were not enough, they cannot make new memories either; each experience they have has about a fifteen-minute shelf life in their brains before it disappears from their minds entirely. For some characters, it’s even shorter. They are always and only in the present. They stumble through the day, trying to make sense of it. Then the next day they wake up and start all over as though they’ve never …

[paragraph missing]

… sense of cinematic déjà vu pervades Embers. It has traces of Memento (2000), Children of Men (2006), Blade Runner (1982), even Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979). But saying so is not to call it derivative. The familiarity is part of the film’s power: we recognize things in it, perhaps even feel like we’ve been here before, yet Embers still makes us feel lost in a strange-but-familiar … a …

Where was I?

The question the movie makes me ask, and the thing I want to talk about, is can we be human without memory?

On one level, the film, or, more accurately put, what I remember of it, delivers a pretty easy answer: memory separates us from animals. Without memory, we’ll revert to an animal state. One character—the film calls him Chaos, I think—violently charges through the world, smashing everything in his path without any awareness of what he’s doing. He looks like a human but more closely resembles a stray dog adrift in a world without context. In a sense, he is the most tragic character in the film because he does not have a clue as to what he’s lost. However, one powerful scene suggests that he might be the best off of all because he cannot suffer from what he doesn’t remember. Another …

… simple answer is deceptive, and Embers distinguishes itself from its influences (and complicates its approach to what makes us human) in one of its major storylines. You see, earlier I forgot to mention that there are two characters who have not lost their memories. There’s this guy and his daughter who live in this humungous underground bunker, insulated from the virus. Her name is Miranda. His name is not Prospero, but The Tempest is certainly what Carré is going for here. These two characters retain their memories, and Miranda spends her days reviewing photographs and stories from the past. She also has to take a memory quiz every morning to make sure she has not gotten infected.

I should have mentioned this sooner.

She lives as much in the past as her counterparts are trapped in the present. So she’s got her memories, but she isn’t exactly forming new ones. Each day is more or less the same for her: she studies, reminisces, exercises, eats dinner, and goes to sleep. Then she wakes up the next day and does it all over again. She is as unhappy as the other characters are oblivious.

But is she more human? Are any of them human?

In taking on these questions, the film owes a significant debt to Blade Runner. However, while Blade Runner makes us question what it means to be human, its answer, empathy, is pretty clear-cut. There are no such simple answers in Embers. We’re led to believe that it’s memory, but including the Miranda storyline does … it does … it …

[paragraph missing]

Carré’s approach here is what makes the film daring, even though it does not come off as edgy initially. Her film twists the classic innocence vs. experience storyline inside out. Instead of privileging one over the other as most films do, she makes both appear as woefully inadequate approaches to life on their own. Deprived of one, we would covet the other and possibly forget about the importance of both … the reliance of memory on wonder, of wonder on …

… choice we as viewers would prefer—the past (memory) or the present (direct experience)—has a lot more to tell us about ourselves than about the film. But of course this is the point of Embers and of all quality genre work, in fact: it poses vital questions to us that it refuses to answer, that only we can answer for …

… just how much do we value our humanity? How do we even define what it means to be human? Can we lose it? Most importantly, how do we know when it’s gone? To experience Embers is to realize that we don’t need to have amnesia to forget our humanity. Perhaps we already …

The film is not unforgettable because everything is forgettable. Even the memories we cherish most will someday …

We can seal our minds off to avoid letting things slip away, but eventually …

Let’s just say that Embers is a film I’d like to remember for as long …

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