Embers puts us in a world that’s gone post-apocalyptic because of a disease that erases memories. Yeah, how horrible does that sound? So people go to sleep and when they wake up the next day they don’t remember anything. We follow a 20-something couple (Iva Gocheva, Jason Ritter), an ultra-aggressive teenager (Karl Glusman), an older scientist (Tucker Smallwood), and a young child (Silvan Friedman), all roaming around in this wild, wasted world where no one remembers anything. There’s also a young woman (Greta Fernández) and her father (Roberto Cots) who still have their memories because they’re holed up in a bunker.
Oddly enough, how the narrative unfolds reminded me a lot of Groundhog Day.
In Groundhog Day, Phil Connors is stuck repeating February 2nd over and over. He can die and he wakes up on the morning of February 2nd, in the same bed of a hotel. He could be the biggest asshole in the world, go to sleep, wake up the morning of February 2nd and it’s like nothing ever happened..
In the case of Embers, the characters aren’t reliving the same day. Situationally, everything is fresh. They might wake up in an apartment complex, or an abandoned church, or on a pile of plush dolls, in a car, and they’d have no idea how they got there, who they are, or anything. Burn a building down in Groundhog Day and it’s there again, burn it down in Embers and, well, it’s gone.
The difference here is that Phil Connors can’t change anything, none of his actions extend past 24 hours, so his impact on the world, no matter how hard he tries to be good or evil, is zilch. But he can learn new things, he can change himself, for better or worse.
The characters in Embers who are afflicted by the memory eating disease are on the opposite end of the spectrum. They can’t change themselves. They can’t learn anything new. We watch The Professor try to learn something new then read a post-it note that he had left himself that was on that very topic. We get the sense that he re-reads this same section, over and over, has this ah-ha moment, over and over, and then finds the post-it note and is disappointed, over and over. But these characters can and do impact the world around them. They can hurt themselves, they can hurt others. They can build and they can destroy. They just won’t remember.
This is why movies are exciting to me, not just for the worlds they create, or the stories they tell us, but because we can take two very different movies, one from 1993 and one from 2015, and juxtapose them, put them in conversation with each other.
A few of the characters in Embers experience huge emotional events: murder, rape, loss, injury. Yet they’re unchanged by these events. There’s then a hypothesis that memory is linked to growth or destruction of self. With no memory, we return to a baseline of self, our most basic chemical constitution. Someone inclined to be friendly who is taken advantage of doesn’t learn from the experience, they remain as friendly and ignorant as before. Someone inclined to hurt others who then suffers at the hands of someone just as violent, they forget what’s been done to them and return to hurting others.
Compare that to Groundhog Day where Phil remembers everything. He gets direct feedback on his actions and remembers how people responded to those actions. So when he’s a jerk to Rita, Rita smacks him in the face. When he’s a bum on the couch memorizing Jeopardy, he feels awful about himself.
These experiences and the memory of these experiences cause Phil to, over time, grow as a person. He loses his attitude, he becomes more altruistic, he spends his free time improving himself by learning language and instruments and poetry.
While watching Embers, I couldn’t help but think about what I forget in life. About experiences that have been instrumental in my development as a person that I’ve just…let slip from my mind. Have I regressed to a baseline rather than continuing to improve? What important memories have I slipped my mind without my ever realizing it? And will I ever realize it?
I think that’s the most terrifying thing about Embers. It’s not just this crazy post-apocalyptic thing that we can be entertained by and then go home and not think about anymore. It extrapolates a very real problem in our life: that our brains are fallible. Maybe we don’t forget after a single day, but after two or three, a week, a few months. Experiences lose shape and form, they melt, they pool together, they form an ocean and are lost. Who are we then? Do we return to our baseline? How much of our bad habits return? This happens to us, all the time, every day. It’s incredible to watch a movie that explores that and shows us the sadness of it, but also the beauty of it.