Memento, and why it could be such a difficult film to remake

As news emerges of a Memento remake, Ryan praises Christopher Nolan's original, and explains why it'll be a difficult story to retell.

What a difference 15 years can make. At the turn of the millennium, Christopher Nolan had just shot his second feature, Memento, and was struggling to find a studio willing to distribute it in America. It was too confusing, they said. I mean, really: who wants to watch a movie told backwards?

Lots of people as it turned out. Once it finally found a distributor, Memento not only far exceeded its tiny $5m investment in its small-scale theatrical run, but also proved to be the making of Nolan’s career. It marked him out as an individual filmmaker in full control of his craft, and over the next decade, he proceeded to make a string of hits: Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception.

As an advertisement for Nolan’s abilities, Memento did its job. So does it matter that a company called AMBI Pictures is planning to remake it? It is, after all, a low-budget thriller performed by some great yet less-than-A-list actors: Guy Pearce, Joe Pantoliano, Carrie-Anne Moss. Better production values and a starrier cast – that would really make Memento fly for a new generation of movie-goers.

Wouldn’t it? 

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Well, maybe, if Memento happened to be a typical thriller in the more typical ’90s mould – The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, Unlawful Entry, Copycat, Single White Female, Double Jeopardy, or any one of the other genre offerings that were once the bread and butter of studios around 20 years ago or so. But Memento is far from a typical thriller, even though it hews closely to the staples of the noir genre.

Memento is unusual in that it is not only keyed into the time it was made, but it’s also a the product of a specific filmmaker and his personal approach to making films.

Its central motif, and the one often replicated on Memento‘s DVD cover art, is that of the Polaroid photograph, and how the developing image – or, when played in reverse, the fading image – replicates the unreliable nature of memory. It’s a visual bit of shorthand for the affliction suffered by Pearce’s lead character, Leonard Shelby, whose brain can no longer create new memories after he and his wife were attacked by an intruder in their home.

The image of his dying wife burned into his mind, Leonard turns detective, intent on tracking down his wife’s killer by following the scant clues he’s managed to gather. It’s a task complicated by Leonard’s retrograde amnesia, which forces him to make constant notes, either on bits of paper, the backs of photographs or even his own skin, before the information he gathers fades from his mind. 

The tragedy of Leonard’s unusual disability is elegantly portrayed through Nolan’s writing and filmmaking (his younger brother, Jonathan Nolan, came up with the premise, while Christopher Nolan wrote the screenplay). Memento‘s events are told out of sequence, with two timelines running counter to one another: one showing Leonard’s actions in (what we presume to be) the present tense, while the second timeline shows events in the past, narrated by Leonard. To confuse things further, events in the first timeline are shown backwards, while those in the past run chronologically.

In this stew of back and forth motion, exactly when Leonard lost his wife remains unclear. Was it weeks? Months? Years? This temporal disorientation is vital to the impact of Memento as a thriller, because it leaves the audience in the same state as Leonard: lost in time, forced to cobble together what’s happening from disparate fragments.

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At the time of Memento‘s release, its harsher critics suggested that the film was a clever trick and little else, and that Leonard remains a cypher; an unreadable blank. Without the gimmick of reverse storytelling, they argue, Memento would be nothing more or less than a conventional thriller. 

The counter to this is that Leonard’s necessarily a blank, because the film invites us to share his journey through the baffling mystery. I’d also argue that Nolan’s use of parallel plotlines is as vital to the story as the shark in Jaws; Memento may concern the hunt for a killer, but it’s also about the way Leonard’s memories have affected him – the true, grim extent of this only becoming clear at the end of the film.

“Look, memory can change the shape of a room, the color of a car,” Leonard says in one scene; “memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record.”

Memento asks intriguing, even troubling questions about the role memory plays in the makeup of our personalities. Our experiences and our responses to them are the bedrock of who we are; what happens when we become uprooted from that? Memories change over time; our brain edits them, leaving bits out and changing the order of events. What would we be like if we didn’t have that faculty anymore? In Leonard’s case, he’s a kind of pilgrim or spectre, sleeping alone in seedy hotel rooms, motivated only by his desire for revenge.

This naturally leads to the question: what more could a remake add to the version of Memento that already exists? While most remakes fare poorly, it’s arguable that a handful are wonderful: David Cronenberg’s The Fly and John Carpenter’s The Thing are two shining examples that immediately spring to mind. Both movies worked so well because they dared to do something wildly different from their predecessors, either by mining the source material for a more paranoid take (in the case of The Thing) or by taking the premise into more personal, wildly different territory (in the case of The Fly). In the case of Memento, it’s difficult to see how such an idiosyncratic, self-contained film could be satisfyingly reinterpreted. 

Then again, there’s always the chance that AMBI Pictures has a filmmaker waiting in the wings who’s come up with a clever way of retelling Memento. Might they have found a way to set the story in 2015, where the ubiquity of smartphones with their built in cameras could act as a surrogate memory for Leonard? Thinking about it, how would the advent of social media and periscope have affected Leonard’s manhunt?

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A great director may be able to answer those questions, or even take Memento‘s premise into an arena we haven’t considered. But Memento remains an odd choice of film to remake, even from a purely financial perspective; its plot is complex and downbeat, its style as specific to its storyteller as Psycho was to Alfred Hitchcock or Oldboy was to Park Chan-wook, and we know how the remakes of those turned out.

The pragmatic, coolly logical way Memento is told is uniquely Nolan, which is why it proved to be such an effective calling card back in 2000; it showcased the director’s control over his craft, and demonstrated how he could use the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of filmmaking – specifically, editing – to as emotional an effect as the writing or visual composition. Memento is as much a nightmare about the loss of self as it is a thriller, and because it comes from the materialist mind of Christopher Nolan, it’s a dish served ice cold. Right now, it’s impossible to think of another filmmaker who could retell the same story with such economy or intelligence.