Sunday, October 25, 2009

Unremembered -- rediscovering the past

Director: Greg Kerr, 2009.

Independent film-maker Greg Kerr brings a striking debut full-length feature to the big screen. Kerr, who is by day a professor at Portland Community College teaching screen writing classes, wrote this screenplay, then self-funded its production in Oregon. A labor of love, it took over 5 years to come to fruition. This is a film made on a shoe-string budget of $31,000, and that is evident. But after the first 5 minutes, the story is strong enough to make us forget the film's limitations. Indeed, the screenplay won Award of Merit at The Indie Fest in California.

"If you had it to do over again, what would you do?" This opening line sets the stage for what is to come -- a sci-fi mystery with a non-linear narrative. There will be opportunities for the protagonist to "live over" his life and rediscover his past. In fact, the film is similar in many ways to Donnie Darko or Memento but in reverse. It takes us through 16 days in the life of John Outis (Tim Delaney), but these 16 days last a literal lifetime.

Unremembered plays with time while giving us, in Kerr's words, "a romp through relativity." It is a complex and convoluted film that plays on multiple levels. As a neo noir, it has the classic sultry femme fatale separating a man and his wife. As a mystery, it is unconventional in making the 'detective' a physics professor, who explains in layman's terms aspects of Einstein's special relativity without belaboring the theory or descending into a patronizing lecture.

If the plotline is fascinating, the quality of acting is surprising. The four lead actors all give strong performances, and Tim Delaney received an Award of Merit for his role. But watching it as a physicist and theologian, I was drawn into the film's main themes of dreams, time, existence, and will, and the spiritual parallels. This independent movie contains more meat to chew on than a number of mainstream Hollywood formula films. It almost begs a second viewing simply to see how the circular timing makes sense.

As the film opens, John Outis stands outside a beautiful home, covered in blood, holding a knife. When he washes the blood off, standing next to an Asian woman, Penelope (Laura Duyn), she seems to not notice him. After he is thrown out of the house by her lover Anthony (Spencer Conway), John is arrested on suspicion of being a thief. But when the police have no remembrance of who he is and why he was arrested, things start to get interesting. Confusing, though, is the fact that John does not know who he is. He has no memory, no past. These first few scenes come rapid fire, leaving the audience as bewildered as the hero. We don't know what's happening any more than John does.

On day 2, when John returns to this house, Penelope welcomes him in. Apparently they have been together a month. But still John cannot remember his past. His confusion is exacerbated. Realizing the police are likely to be of no help, he seeks out an expert, in this case a physics professor, Tina Plantes (Karla Mason). Intrigued, she agrees to help as long as he can come up with proof, evidence. She is a scientist, after all.

As the film progresses John's past seems to change daily. And as it does, the people in the present change too. So, like Groundhog Day, John reprises his visit to Tina's house, injecting some humor to offset the dark drama that is developing. Little by little, though, she begins to peel back the onion of this problem. And she forms hypotheses that can be tested based on special relativity and the perceptions of time.

Dreams form a critical element. John's dreams show him things that happened in his past, thereby enlightening him, or things that are to come, thereby warning him. They are the connection between John's timeline and that of other people. The importance of dreams here is a reflection, in a way, of the truth that dreams can communicate truth. God has used dreams to convey his message to humans in the past. He spoke to Jacob in a dream (Gen. 28:12-15). He used a series of dreams to free Joseph from an Egyptian prison (Gen. 40-41). Pilate's wife was warned in a dream about Jesus' innocence (Matt. 27:19), but could not disuade her husband from condeming Christ. He still uses dreams today, predominantly in cultures that are less rationalistic. That is why many Muslims who convert to Christianity today describe dreams as the way God reached out to them.

As the days continue, John's past emerges. He is not the wounded hero he at first seemed. Callie (Carmela Ramaglia) enters the picture, a foxy mistress. Indeed, there is a history there, a sordid affair. Murder, blackmail and betrayal are piled on, as the thriller gathers momentum towards its climax.

It becomes clear to Tina, if not to John at first, that he is in a different timeline. She brings up the very question of existence: "I don't think that you exist in time like the rest of the world. History is catching up with you." Disconnected timelines are causing weird happenings.

This raises the question of time itself. Is it linear and constant for everyone? Einstein proved that if we move at close to the speed of light not only will we get a speeding ticket but we will also experience a slowing of time. Time, apparently, is not constant. Can there be different timelines, parallel to one another? Superstring theory, in physics, has postulated multiple dimensions beyond space and time. (Brian Greene has written a very readable book on this: "The Elegant Universe," 1999.) And multiverse hypotheses, seeking to understand all that is, propose that multiple parallel universes exist (see Michio Kaku's book, "Hyperspace," 1994). Hard to visualize, there may be more to reality, including time, than most of us know.

Indeed, Unremembered brings to mind the parallels between Jesus and John Outis. John exists in a different timeline to the rest of the world. To others, he is outside of time. Yet he can intersect their timeline in different ways. Before God created all that is, Jesus pre-existed (Jn. 1:1), outside of time. He can intersect with our timeline in an infinite number of points, thus enabling him to experience the past, present and future as if it were one. As hard as it is for us to understand, Unremembered offers a faint glimpse of how this might work.

Then there is the question of existence: what is existence? Is John real or is he somehow an apparition, a figment of someone's imagination. If he is outside of Tina's and Penelope's timeline can he exist for them? Tina says to him, "I can touch you. But you don't exist." Which is it? Do we deny our senses? Jesus said something similar to Thomas, after his resurrection. When he appeared to the disciples gathered in a locked room. Just as John says to Tina, "Why do you doubt me?" so too Jesus said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe." (Jn. 20:27)

Furthermore, John is told at one point, "You can't protect us and save yourself." That was true of Jesus. As his life on earth moved inexorably toward Golgotha and crucifixion, he could save himself or he could save the world. But he could not do both. One had to give. He chose to voluntarily take our place and die on the cross. What sacrifice.

Kerr throws in the issue of the human will. Both John and Tina exercise their wills to create reality and connection points. How much freedom does a person have? Conversely, how much of life is determined? This is a classic conundrum in theology debated for centuries: predestination versus free will.

But there the similarities between John Outis and Jesus end. John is actually an antihero, and his growing understanding of his past reveal dark secrets. He is no savior. Though we are sympathetic towards him, particularly due to Delaney's performance, the sinister side of John's life slowly emerges. The sins of his past seemingly cannot be avoided, and they creep into his present and future.

Unremembered catapults to a startling ending, leaving the viewer wondering and thinking. The clues are there. Some see them and connect the dots; others don't. The film opens the door to various interpretations, but the director's statements help shed light on the plot. For an unknown movie, Unremembered will certainly be unforgotten.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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