“Embers” is thought-provoking science fiction, a mystery with no easy answers, and an accomplished film from a director making a feature-length movie debut. Everyone has lost the ability to make or retain memories, which makes you wonder how society would function in such a scenario? Would it even function? What do people do if they can’t remember anything? How can we even exist as people if we can’t remember who we are, or even why we are?
These are big questions, and “Embers” takes the best way to approach them, with small stories focused on a handful of characters. Instead of trying to portray an entire world grappling with this situation as it goes down (that would be the Roland Emmerich version of this movie), it is about a decade after it has all gone down, after a virus causes everyone to forget everything on a day to day basis, and we see how different people survive even a day in this horrible world. Because yes of course society can’t function and everything has broken down and people are forced to literally sift through the rubble.
Those people include a guy who was obviously a professor of some sort, living out in the woods, reading books and taking notes and trying to figure out how to strengthen his memory, and he has a whole system set up to help him with his day to day routines. There’s a young boy who can’t speak because how can a person learn to talk if they can’t remember anything new? It is a miracle he’s alive at all since he is totally alone. He comes across a few different people, characters who are all just a little off, because who wouldn’t be in this situation?
Then there’s the savage fella, a young man who doesn’t even speak. He might be young enough to have the same problem as the kid, and he is constantly angry, which would likely happen to many lost and confused young men in this world, filled with inexplicable energy and rage and nowhere to put it. It is almost as if he has reverted to a more animalistic state, and he just roams through a ruined city, kicking things over and breaking windows and attacking anyone he sees. If you can’t remember anything, can you possibly develop empathy for people?
Then there’s the couple who wake up together every morning and then spend the day trying to remember who they are and why they are together. Essentially they are forced to meet for the first time and fall in love over the course of a day, every day, over and over, as they wander around together, just trying so damn hard to remember. And finally there is a father and daughter who live in a post-modern bunker, sealed off from the world, the only two people who have their memories, but with no one other than each other to share them. It is worth it to have retained one’s memory if you can only use it to long for the past and mourn the future?
“Embers” cuts these stories together, jumping from character to character, a few of them cross paths with each other, and it all adds up to a vivid portrait of a terrible scenario. Instead of having one big plot and being all linear and boring, it is a mosaic, like a stained glass picture in a church, various colors coming together to make one striking image. And while at times it gets quite heavy, there is also a little bit of hope in there, hope that some people would still try to come together, would try to help each other and figure it all out and find a way to survive. But how possible would that be without those memories?
One of the great things about “Embers” is how it can stand as an example to aspiring filmmakers and storytellers as way to explore big ideas and present a big scenario while doing so on a smaller or restricted budget. A movie doesn’t have to come up with big set pieces in order to get across these questions about life and love and human nature. It just has to be smart and thoughtful and that is what we have here.