A future with no memory is the world in which Embers takes place. Ravaged by a neurological disorder that destroys memory, humans roam a post-apocalyptic environment without the ability to recall the past and forge new memories. Imagine if everyone on the planet wrestled with their recall in the same way as the lead characters in Finding Dory or Memento…except there are no Pixar jokes and no Nolan mind fucks.
Amidst the rubble of a civilization that once was, Embers follows a collection of characters that represent different themes of humanity as explored through the concept of memory. Love’s intangible value is expressed in a couple that wakes up next to one another each morning with no recognition of their lover’s face. Instead, they rely on matching bracelets, assembled with scraps of the same fabric, to inform them that they are indeed together. Does love exist beyond building shared experiences? Is it somehow just there between two special people? Or do the forgetful lovers project feelings of affection because the matching bracelets tell them to? I don’t think my junior high friendship necklaces were so effective.
The quest for belonging and the yearning to grow are articulated by a wandering child that befriends a solitary man. The adolescent boy searches for a new parental figure each day, eventually welcomed into a small makeshift family by a man whose rural property he stumbles onto. This man is a former teacher, who re-reads his own books again and again in an attempt to derail the mysterious disorder plaguing his brain. Together, the man is able to teach the boy to ride a bike — a simple pleasure that stirs hope among the frustrations of forgetting a lifetime of education.
A young man fights, steals, and scavenges his way through the devastated world. The struggle to find meaning in the base trappings of survival challenge morality. Does a code of behavior naturally persist through our conscience? Do we learn morality through accumulated experiences or is it just fiction to be discarded along with our memory?
Finally, the very essence of freedom is debated between a father and daughter, who have locked themselves in a bunker, sheltered from the world to preserve their memory. What value does their life have if they cannot experience the world and forge new meaningful memories? If they choose to abandon the security of isolation, thereby giving up their ability to remember, will they cast away their identity?
Embers asks a lot of questions. It generally asks a lot from the audience. The themes are not laid out neatly for a lax viewing. The questions are subtly posed through the interactions of the characters with their world, and it’s up to those watching to hypothesize the answers. The exploratory nature of Embers is ripe for philosophical discussions, but it’s narrative qualities left me emotionally withdrawn and uninvested in the lives of its characters. The threads pulling me deeper into the story through the hopes and fears of characters were too thin. Embers requires one to watch without the promise of a linear story payoff, only a thematic one.
It’s hard to believe Embers is the first feature directed by Claire Carré. From its stark visual design to its nuanced performances, the sci-fi indie is executed with the careful craft of a veteran filmmaker. If there’s one (hyphenated) word I would use to describe Embers, it’s “well-directed.” Carré was also a co-writer, editor, and costume designer. Claire, I bow down to thee. Also, insert 3 clapping emojis right here.
I am looking forward to more heady filmmaking from Claire Carré, with the hope that the storytelling rises to the impressive heights as the world she explored with Embers. We can only wish that the lessons and successes of her first film are not forgotten. 2 wink emojis, please.