When it comes to fascinating ideas to explore, Hollywood loves to use memory as a driver of blockbuster plots. It appears in everything from contemporary pieces on how diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia affect individuals and families, to implanting fantastical memories in far-off futures. But how realistic are these portrayals of memory in movies? In an on-going series, we’re going to explore popular movies with memory as a core component of their plot, and find out how accurate they really are. Here are the first eight movies on memory.
Total Recall (1990)
Rekall gives you the chance to remember a life you never lived. But what happens when the false memories unlock real memories, and your life is never the same?
Dennis Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a construction worker who keeps having dreams about Mars featuring a mysterious woman. He’s never been to Mars, and likely never will. So he decides to visit Rekall, a company that implants false memories. There, he chooses a fantastical adventure where Mars has a blue sky and he’s a secret agent. But halfway through the procedure things go wrong. And suddenly Quaid is on the run, trying to figure out which memories are real and which are fake.
Total Recall tackles memories on two fronts. There’s the fake memories Rekall offers to implant in your brain, and the repressed memories sinister forces are trying to keep Quaid from remembering. While memory implantation was the stuff of science fiction when this movie first came out, starting in the early 1990’s research started showing that it was possible to successfully implant memories through various techniques. In fact, just having family members alter the narrative of family events had a 37% success rate in individuals remembering a fictional event. Science has only progressed since then. In 2019, scientists were able to surgically implant false memories in mice. They were also able to alter actual memories. And research indicates we can suppress memory, too.
50 First Dates (2004)
When a man meets the girl of his dreams he never imagines that he’ll have to win her over every single day.
Living in Oahu is perfect for serial dater Henry Roth (Adam Sandler). With plenty of tourists, he never has to see the same woman twice. Until he sees Lucy Whitmore (Drew Barrymore) building a house out of her waffles. When he can’t get her out of his head, he goes back to try to ask her on a date. But she doesn’t remember who he is. And because a brain injury means she loses her memories every night, she never will.
While the name “Goldfield’s Syndrome” that Lucy suffers from is fictional, the actual amnesia is real. It’s a form of anterograde amnesia and the film is surprisingly accurate in how it portrays the symptoms. There are patients who “reboot” after going to sleep, losing all the memories they created during the day. And the character Ten-Second Tom, who could only remember new events for ten-seconds was also based in truth. Clive Wearing is one of the most famous amnesia patients who could only retain new memories for seven seconds.
Even the Hollywood ending where Lucy somehow remembered Henry is based in truth. Clive denied keeping a journal but knew where it was. He also recognized his wife even as she aged ten, twenty, and thirty years, and never was surprised that she—or even he—was aging. It seems that while patients with this type of amnesia can’t access new memories, they are coded somewhere in the brain and patients indicate this in surprising and unexpected ways.
A man is on a mission to find the men who killed his wife. The only problem is he has anterograde amnesia and can’t form new memories.
Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) lives his life through tattoos and post-it notes. They’re the only clues he has to remember his mission: finding the men who hurt his wife and caused his amnesia. He relates the story of an insurance claim he turned down, where he believed a man was faking amnesia. As Leonard follows the clues inked on his body, the two stories intertwine in a shocking and unexpected twist.
The movie is told both chronologically and in reverse order, indicated by either color film or black-and-white, but fold together at the end to form one cohesive narrative. The black-and-white portions give the audience the truth of Leonard’s life, while the color scenes throw the viewer into Leonard’s current experience. The result is a shockingly accurate portrayal of what it would be like to live life without the ability to retain new memories. Though the film has a dark twist, with Leonard using his amnesia to willfully alter what he believes is the truth, it does show how disorienting life becomes when you can’t retrieve new memories. In fact, doctors and memory experts have lauded the film for how accurate this portrayal is.
A linguistic’s professor is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease just after her fiftieth birthday.
Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) has a successful life. She’s a linguistic professor at Columbia University, her husband (Alec Baldwin) is a physician, and she has three adult children. But her life takes an unexpected turn when she forgets a word during a lecture and gets lost jogging on the familiar campus. The incidents spark a visit to her doctor, where she is diagnosed with early onset familial Alzheimer’s disease. As the disease progresses, life changes substantially for both Alice and her family.
Early onset Alzheimer’s disease is when symptoms occur in patients younger than sixty-five years old. It is one of the more rare forms of the disease, affecting only 5 – 10% of Alzheimer’s patients and 60% have a family history. Still Alice gives a hauntingly realistic portrayal of the disease, though experts indicate that the progression of symptoms occurs much faster than normal. That doesn’t make the film inaccurate, though. Some patients can see a rapid cognitive decline in a similar timeline as Alice. If anything, the film doesn’t indicate that the form Alice suffers from is rare, making it slightly misleading. But overall, it does a fantastic job showing how difficult Alzheimer’s disease is from both patient and family perspectives.
The Girl on the Train (2016)
A woman sees a murder during a blackout. But just because she can’t remember, that doesn’t mean she’s safe.
Alcohol ruined Rachel Watson’s (Emily Blunt) life. She lost her job and her marriage. Now, she rides the train into New York City every day, where she goes by her ex-husband’s new home with his new wife and their new baby. And she takes her obsession further by harassing the couple when she’s drunk. When she sees their married neighbor kissing a stranger, she decides to intervene. But the next day she wakes up covered in blood and hungover, with no memory of what happened. Rachel struggles to piece together a timeline of events to clear both her name and her conscious.
There are several different types of blackouts that alcohol can induce. Rachel suffers from what’s known as “fragmentary blackouts” where her memories are spotty rather than completely gone. Because she remembers fragments of events, she then strings together a narrative of what she believes happened. The memories are there, which is how she can piece together the truth in the end. This is the most common type of blackout people who drink alcohol suffer from, and the adverse affects to Rachel’s life are also accurately portrayed.
The Father (2020)
A father and daughter navigate life with dementia in a heartbreaking and exceedingly humane depiction.
After Anthony Evans (Anthony Hopkins) fires his caregiver, his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) visits him. She wants to move to Paris, but can’t leave him in his flat if he keeps firing his caregivers. Though he struggles to remember events and frequently loses objects, Anthony refuses to move. But Anthony continues to wake up in different places, sometimes with people he knows, other times with strangers. As Anthony struggles to piece together his life, he desperately holds onto logic and rational thinking, even when those two things seem to evade him the most.
Experts praised The Father for its stunningly accurate embodiment of dementia, with an entire paper published on the NIH relating the accuracy of the movie. Where some films ease the harshness of the disease, the film drops the viewer into a nonlinear narration, showing exactly how disorienting dementia truly is. Through clever camera work and an Oscar-winning performance, we see exactly how each stage of dementia looks and feels. Memory is slippery, time gets muddled, and facts become elusive. It also highlights the difficulty of the patient-caregiver relationship as the symptoms of the disease progress. Overall, the Father hits all the medical notes, covers medication options, how dementia feels from a patient perspective, and it’s all wrapped in a mystery for the viewer to unravel.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
A man discovers that his ex-girlfriend erased her memory of their relationship. But when he tries to do the same, he discovers he doesn’t want to forget and fights to keep his memories with her.
Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) and his girlfriend Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) don’t have the perfect relationship. But he never expected her to erase him entirely. He decides two can play that game, and visits the same clinic to undergo the procedure. As Joel relives their happier moments, he realizes he doesn’t want to forget Clementine. The more he fights to keep his memories intact, the harder the company works to delete them entirely, forcing Joel to face the truth of why they drifted apart and maybe give him a map to find her again.
While memories can be planted, deleting an entire relationship isn’t possible yet. But the film does create a fictionalized possibility through the very real process of reconsolidation. Rather than memory being a fixed “thing” in your brain, neuroscientists believe the brain recodes a memory every time it’s retrieved. In theory, if you block the protein synthesis that occurs when synapses connect neurons—what happens in memory reconsolidation, you could technically target a memory and erase it. Though they don’t go into detail, the process the company uses in the movie vaguely appears to be doing exactly this.
The movie also does a fairly accurate representation of how memory is formed in the brain, particularly through Joel’s journey through his mind as he tries to escape the procedure. While there are a lot of technical aspects the movie could hone in on, instead it focuses on the important role emotion plays in forming, storing, and retrieving memory. Overall, while the techniques might be plausible, they still aren’t possible—yet.
When a heist goes wrong, a valuable painting goes missing. The only problem is the person who took it can’t remember where it is.
Simon Newton (James McAvoy) was more than the auctioneer. He was the inside man. But when he attacks the leader in the middle of the theft, he gets hit on the head. When he wakes up, he has no memory of what happened in the moments before and after the attack. Through the help of a hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson), he works to uncover his lost memories. But the truth is far more complicated than he ever imagined.
This tightly woven thriller has plenty of twists and turns, all tied to how head injuries can lead to memory loss. In cases of traumatic brain injuries, less than 3% of people had no memory loss. On the other side, 45% experienced memory loss for a month or longer. Clinicians were wary of hypnosis as an effective tool for memory recovery, however, more studies are emerging that show certain hypnotic techniques can be effective in helping patients with traumatic brain injuries recover lost memories while also aiding in alleviating anxiety and post-traumatic symptoms.
As science catches up, many plots that were once the stuff of science fiction is now shifting towards reality. Stay tuned for more amazing movies on memory, and our analysis of how accurate they are.
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