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Sundance Film Review: ‘Rememory’

Variety logo Variety 1/28/2017 Guy Lodge
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“We are nothing more than the memories we keep,” a character intones in “Rememory,” a conceptually promising but heavily contrived psychological whodunit that viewers are unlikely to store for long in their own memory banks. Starring Peter Dinklage as a guilt-ridden amateur sleuth investigating death and skulduggery behind a revolutionary new memory-extraction device, director Mark Palansky’s sophomore feature is peppered with such soundbites: “Memory is the ultimate decider of our lives,” “We only know the true value of a moment when it becomes a memory,” and so on. The final effect is akin to that of a Hallmark card inscribed by Christopher Nolan, and it’s that earnest self-importance of tone that finally makes this light sci-fi effort a bit of a trudge, despite Dinklage’s committed and empathetic performance. His “Game of Thrones” cachet, coupled with a reasonable narrative hook, may be enough to secure modest theatrical distribution for “Rememory,” though it’ll engage more brains in VOD.

For Canadian writer-director Palansky, “Rememory” marks a slightly more auspicious foray into high-concept storytelling than his 2006 debut, the gallingly whimsical girl-with-a-pig’s-nose romcom “Penelope.” His latest is a sleek production within its budgetary constraints, generally well served by a classy cast — including a brief role for the late Anton Yelchin, whose presence is all the more poignant in a film very much about the conflicted emotions incurred by technological remembrances of the dead. (He receives a dedication in the closing credits “for the past, and for memories of our future.”) It’s the script, however, that largely scuppers their efforts: Serious-minded but frequently hokey, its story world is too thin, too conveniently small, to persuasively sustain its ambitious fantasy premise.

To the credit of Pansky and co-writer Michael Vukadinovich, the eponymous technology that drives their story doesn’t feel all that far-fetched in context — like something out of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” given a silvery Apple-generation makeover. Developed by mild-mannered scientist-psychologist Gordon Dunn (Martin Donovan), the Rememory machine accesses users’ subconscious to “objectively” replay memories that have been distorted or entirely repressed over time, recording them to glass tabs that resemble hi-tech updates of, well, memory sticks. Traumatized model-maker Sam Bloom (Dinklage) is interested in submitting to Dunn’s treatment, seeking closure on a car accident he caused (joltingly staged in the film’s opening reel) that killed his rock-singer brother (Matt Ellis) — and had, as the film slowly reveals, further tragic consequences besides.

When Dunn is found suspiciously dead in his office, his prospective patients and fragile case studies are left in limbo — as is the tech corporation backing Rememory, run by a British CEO (Henry Ian Cusick) whose perfectly sculpted beard is such familiar visual shorthand for dastardly intentions that he may as well have “VILLAIN” tattooed across his jaw. If the film’s depiction of the business sphere is unconvincingly poky, it’s on slightly more assured ground with Bloom’s scrappy detective work in the wake of Dunn’s death. That, too, takes a turn for the absurd when he manages to befriend Dunn’s stricken, questioning widow Carolyn (an excellent, open-hearted Julia Ormond) and steal the Rememory prototype with baffling ease. A two-pronged investigation ensues, as Bloom consults the device both to uncover the full circumstances of his accident, and those of Dunn’s death — running through a list of suspects, including Yelchin’s volatile test patient, who have various axes to grind with the great inventor.

Palansky nevertheless intends the mystery to be secondary to the film’s ruminations on grief, healing and the merits (or otherwise) of playing God with the contents of our own minds. (In one fleeting shot, a certificate reveals that Gordon Dunn’s middle initial is O: The film delights in such superficial symbolic detailing.) But even “Rememory’s” most profound ideas are only skimmed by the script. We are told, for example, that the technology isn’t wholly reliable, but the tangled narrative possibilities of skewed or artificial memory go unpicked, while the aforementioned “Eternal Sunshine,” for all its playful comedy, dealt far more substantially and powerfully with the emotional ramifications of memory manipulation.

To be fair, the film runs into a less easily surmountable issue of cinematic perspective. While the Rememory device supposedly disorientates users by taking them outside of their bodies as they view memories played before them — glossily shot in blurred, propulsive motion by d.p. Gregory Middleton — viewers won’t experience equivalent whiplash from replaying scenes that were already filmed in the third person. This makes Bloom’s revisiting of his fateful car accident, for example, a rather opaque and anticlimactic subplot. Ultimately, “Rememory” works best when focused on personal negotiation of trauma that could be wholly divorced from its vision of the near future — as in one long, tender, regret-fuelled conversation on mutual loss and the possibilities of healing, beautifully played by Ormond and Dinklage, that is the real keeper here.

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