Visionary inventor Gordon Dunn (Martin Donovan) is found dead in his office – with bullet holes in the wall but not his person – on the eve of the launch of his ‘rememory’ device, which records and preserves individual memories on glass slides. Sam Bloom (Peter Dinklage), a modelmaker who has mysterious history with the dead man, manages to get hold of the only working prototype of the gadget and sleuths his way through Dunn’s circle in order to find out what happened and resolve his own grief issues. Chief suspects are Dunn’s wife Carolyn (Julia Ormond), business partner Lawton (Henry Ian Cusick), assistant Neil (Chad Krowchuk) and members of a test group who’ve had memories recorded (Evelyne Brochu, Anton Yeltsin, Scott Hylands). As Bloom, who adopts a Jim Rockford-like series of fake names and cover stories while playing detective, gets closer to figuring out the mystery of Dunn’s death, the various characters have resolutions to their own traumas – and we learn how exactly Bloom and Dunn collided in the past, though (in possibly a clever touch) one key memory is conveyed to us only by a speech from the habitually story-spinning Bloom which isn’t backed up by an objective memory flashback and so may be entirely invented.
Director Mark Palansky – who co-wrote with Mike Vukadinovich – made Penelope in 2006 but has been relatively inactive since. Here, he’s venturing into a type of character-based, gadget-enabled (and often Canadian-flavoured) science fiction typified by outlier works like Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm, David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The tech, sleekly packed into a suitcase, is more appealing than credible – Bloom’s model of the investigation is similarly a cool visual – and, at a stretch, the memory clips around which the plot revolves could as easily be Polaroid photographs. We’re told that the Dunn machine will cure Alzheimer’s and become a legal standard for objectivity, though it’s hinted that memories can be altered or edited either by the rememberer or a machine operator – raising the issue, discussed in Marjorie Prime, of whether we remember memories or memories of memories. It’s a shame that the samples we see of the memories tend to be banal clips of the walks-on-the-beach, grief-after-car-crash, snuggle-under-bedclothes, or lover-walking-out variety. For a film entirely about memory, this seems incurious about how the process works or what memories actually are.
The reason this is still compelling, for all its lapses, is that Dinklage is a great movie leading man who deserves more roles not built around his stature. Coming out of this, you really want to see Sam Bloom get a PI license and go to work on a more interesting case. Donovan, whose calm can seem creepy or humane, is suitably mysterious as the not-so-complicated, unusually sane scientist, and Ormond – a powerhouse dramatic actress who has done consistently great work since her odd fling with being a conventional movie star (First Knight, Sabrina) – is properly intriguing as the doubly-bereaved widow. The late Anton Yelchin has a jittery bit as a trauma suffererer who hasn’t been helped by the recall of memories he’s suppressed for a reason – though, oddly, the fragments of his memories shown here are as inconclusive and evasive as everyone else’s.