Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be. / As a friend, as a friend, as an old enemy.
— Nirvana, “Come as You Are”
Like a high school essay written the night before it’s due, Memory reveals its dearth of imagination right off, with a frontispiece dictionary definition of its title. Remarkably, it gets worse.
The primary memories in question belong to one Dr. Taylor Briggs (Billy Zane), sort of. In fact, almost as soon as he starts having them, they’re revealed as not his, but actually belonging to someone else, at present unknown. This allows for some brief suspense, as the film’s subjective center is not in control of his own seeming narrative. It also assumes some ironic relation to his work as an Alzheimer’s researcher, apparently inspired by his mother’s affliction by the disease as well as by what he explains as an altruistic desire to “help people” (if he had become the practicing doctor he trained to be, he asserts, he would have been working for HMOs and insurance companies rather than patients). His work has led him to the conclusion, he lectures, that “All that matters is life, and our lives, ladies and gentlemen, are nothing more than our memories.”
Still, there’s that problem of possession. The movie, directed by Bennett Davlin and based on his novel, jumpstarts its look at the “science” of memories by sending Taylor to Brazil to deliver that talk, and then to a hospital to observe a patient whose brain scan reveals… anomalies. An adventurer of some sort has stolen a magic red ochre powder from Amazonian Indians, and it has affected the parts of his brain that store memories. They look cancerous, he’s in a coma, and he’s also covered with the red powder. When a bit of it gets through Taylor’s ripped glove, he too is “infected,” though he doesn’t know it until he suffers the first memory-that’s-not-his-but-might-as-well-be.
This would be the one that takes him into a wood, where he’s muddy and worried and chasing a figure wearing a porcelain mask and a black Burberry trenchcoat (he’s careful to note the brand, which probably tells you more about him than the figure). Helpfully, the figure leaves a newspaper for Taylor to find, dated 21 March 1971 and announcing a “Vietnam Cover-up.” Tantalizing, but it ends up that the war is not precisely at issue, the date is — it’s a year before Taylor was born. So how can he have such memories (as opposed to nightmares, which he never considers), whenever he dozes off on desks or on the floor, as if he’s a narcoleptic medium (after Patricia Arquette). He tells his lab-researcher buddy Deepra (Terry Chen) what’s been happening, adding the now-dead ochre guy’s conclusion that the ochre helps you see through a dead ancestor’s eyes. The wise Asian American calls the last part “mystic mumbo jumbo,” then pronounces, “You need to get laid.”
Enter the girl. Stephanie (Tricia Helfer) is an artist who’s trying to sell a painting of a figure who resembles the one Taylor saw in his memory. When he happens on the painting in a shop window and seeks her out, he discovers her at the end of a class she’s teaching, leaving her students with this bit of wisdom: “We’re not really drawing this scene at all, but merely trying to capture the light it’s giving off. The object is always an illusion.” How scenes might “give off light” is not entirely clear, but it sounds good to Mr. Mystic Mumbo Jumbo. And within days, they’re working together to solve his mystery, which is somehow hers too.
Once he’s back home in Boston, the memory becomes more elaborate — each occasion adds more detail, such that Taylor believes he is seeing through the eyes of a serial killer who targeted little girls (but had no sexual interest in them, just a desire to “preserve their innocence”). Seeking respite, he spends brief moments of screen time with his silent mother (Deirdre Blades), and her two very lively best friends, Max (Dennis Hopper) and Carol (Ann-Margret). Retired and way too cool for this movie (you keep expecting him to start talking about portfolios and beaches), Max has trouble with his multiple remotes, calls a bottle of bad wine “dogshit,” and misses a dead wife named Jenny “more than life itself.” Which is strange, because if you’re missing life itself, you’re dead, and so you can’t be missing it or anything else.
Such is the combination of clichés and flatfooted illogic that permeates Memory. No matter how determinedly Taylor pursues connections between his own past and the memories he attributes to a blood relative he’s never known, the movie is never going to overcome its initial inanity. “I’m seeing his regrets,” Taylor explains to Steph. “Why regrets?,” she wonders, quite rightly. His answer is as convoluted as anything else here: “The highs, the lows: these are the only things we remember from our lives.” Steph looks at him like he’s green, but goes along with his plans to break into a victim’s home and rummage about for clues about a missing girl: he’s her man, even if he is experiencing a child killer’s ugly thoughts.
All this is to say that Memory‘s slide into total nonsense (made concrete in an intricate, multi-room killer’s lair decorated with decades’ worth of collected trophies and throbbing green light) is set up early. The fact that it raises worthy questions concerning experience and recollection, as well as cultural, legal, and political definitions of self with regard to memories — well, that’s sort of too bad. They’re lost amid forgettable plotty detritus.