Saturday, August 13, 2011

Unknown -- memories and identities

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra, 2011. (PG-13)

A man wakes up to find out he has no identification and no proof of identity. Clearly he is an American overseas. Is he an international assassin, like Jason Bourne? No, this is not the Bourne Identity, though the film draws parallels to that action adventure “classic”. Rather, he is Dr. Martin Harris, although to others he is simply unknown. Though the premise is somewhat clich├ęd, the film is surprisingly good, with action aplenty and some unexpected twists.

The film opens with Martin (Liam Neeson, Taken) and his wife Elizabeth (January Jones, X-Men: First Class) flying to Berlin. He is a bio-technology researcher presenting a paper at an international conference. When they arrive at their hotel, he realizes he has left his briefcase at the airport and promptly leaves her at check-in to return to the airport. On the way back to the hotel, a freak accident causes the cab to crash through a bridge and plummet into the icy waters of the river below. The cab driver, Gina (Diane Kruger, National Treasure 2), saves him from drowning but flees the scene as she is an illegal. Martin, comatose, is taken to hospital, where he regains consciousness four days later. Without a passport or wallet he is an unknown. But he remembers vaguely his name and his wife.

Fearing for his wife, Martin leaves the hospital and returns to the hotel. But without documentation he cannot get a room key. Seeing Elizabeth, he persuades security to let him talk to her. When she denies knowing him, his frustration grows. When another Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn) joins her and she acknowledges this man as her husband, Martin’s perplexity escalates and his sanity is called into question. Is he a madman? Does he know her? Why does she deny knowing him if his memory is accurate?

With no one else to turn to, he seeks out Gina. But a mysterious man tracks him with deadly intent. Driven from her apartment, Gina and Martin must unravel the enigma of Martin’s identity if they want to stay alive and elude their pursuers.

Before dealing with the main themes of the film, it is worth mentioning the subtheme of illegal immigrants. Gina is one and has no rights. So, when she loses her job as a cabbie she is powerless, much like Martin. Yet, even illegals should not face oppression and injustice. As the prophet Malachi declared, speaking for the Lord, “I will be quick to testify against . . . those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice” (Mal. 3:5).

Ultimately, though, it is the questions of identity that Unknown raises, without answering any of them. How do we prove who we are? When questioned, we usually turn to documentation first. We show our driver’s license or our passport. Sometimes we go back further to birth certificates, but without these we are left unknown and powerless. And, of course, these can be counterfeited so on their own they may not completely establish a person’s identity.

Better perhaps is to turn to those who know us, our spouses, our colleagues and friends. They can vouch for us. They are witnesses to who we are. But if they betray us, denying knowing who we are, we have almost no legal recourse. We simply cannot prove who we are. To the authorities, we sound confused even mad, just like Dr. Harris.

With nothing else left, we turn inwards, to our memories, to establish some level of anchor-hold. But if these become vague, perhaps due to temporary amnesia, they may not match reality and then we must listen to what we are told. Harris tells his medical doctor, “Do you know what it feels like to become insane, doctor? It’s like a war between being told who you are and knowing who you are.”

Are we who we are told we are? Or are we who we know we are? Which can we trust if they disagree?

Although our identity clearly rises above memory, memory contributes to making our lives meaningful. When a disease like Alzheimer’s hits we begin to lose touch with our past. Our memory fails and we become erased blackboards. Even worse is when those around us forget us as well. In the book of Job, one of his counselors refers to the fate of the wicked: “The memory of him perishes from the earth; he has no name in the land.” (Job. 18:17). King David echoed this in Psalm 9: “Endless ruin has overtaken my enemies, you have uprooted their cities; even the memory of them has perished.” Moreover, the psalmist tells us the greatest thing we can do for God: “I will perpetuate your memory through all generations; therefore the nations will praise you for ever and ever” (Psa. 45:17).

Without documents, witnesses or memory we are stranded in a world that is cold and heartless. Yet there is one who will stand up for us. God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). If we put our trust in him, all else may fail yet we will remain safe and secure. To the world we may be unknown, but we are known to Jesus (Jn. 10:28).

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

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