A man and a woman wake up in a room they don’t recognize, clueless as to their own names, how they got there and who the person they’re staring at could be. The man (Jason Ritter) assumes they might be siblings, but the woman (Iva Gocheva) leans toward them being married. Both wear blue mementos ties around their wrists, so they are connected, but how? In a world where almost everyone is afflicted with amnesia, how do people treat each other? Especially when they don’t know themselves.
Claire Carré’s new film, Embers, asks just how much of our identities are defined by our memories. Language and other concepts only work if they are able to be remembered. People wear watches, yet have no concept of the time it tells. Music, poetry, and art are also disappearing as deceptively simple acts like riding a bicycle require training. After a neurological virus has left the world bereft of memory, those left wander from place to place and go to sleep unaware that the next day they will not remember anything that came before.
Typically, a father and his son sharing a stroll through a forest would not be a harrowing scene, but this low-key science fiction film mixes equal parts mirth and malice. Just after a man recreates an infamous scene from Singin’ in the Rain, without knowing it, this idyllic scene is destroyed by a loner (Karl Glusman), whose only enjoyment in life comes in committing horrific acts against fellow survivors. He has played victim to brutal acts as well, but once the memory reset occurs, he gleefully finds another target. Not all who lived through the apocalypse are as lucky as Miranda (Greta Hernandez) and her father. Those with means are able to stave off infection, and that is what Miranda is doing, confined to an underground bunker, playing the cello, and living each day hoping that the signs of memory loss don’t appear. Though after a few years, her refuge is beginning to feel like a prison.
Wide open spaces and ruins of the past world are received with awe by the couple, the boy, the teacher and the remaining population, but underneath every gorgeous shot is an intermittent flash that acts as a reset point. A painful reminder of just how quickly all can be lost when everything, including peril, can be forgotten seconds later.
Approaching the story as an ensemble makes for a global look at the epidemic, yet there are too many narrative threads present for most of them to have any lasting impact. The standouts are obviously Jason Ritter, Iva Gocheva and Greta Hernandez, because once they leave the screen, it’s their characters we hope to see again. Gocheva’s woman and Ritter’s man have no idea where they came from and where they’re headed is an unknown. Only the present has meaning, and that’s because they have each other. An attitude that’s easily lost in the hustle of the 21st Century.
Many summer movies focus on the destruction that comes before a post-dystopian society, Carré instead chooses to spend her time on what comes next, unconcerned with how everything came to be. All the audience knows is that a neurological virus has spread throughout the world with all too recognizable people inhabiting it, fighting to remain connected to each other. Without boasting of any marauding aliens or war among the stars, Embers presents its case for the importance of smaller films in the sci-fi genre that remember the humanity rather than their showier, $200 million counterparts.
Carré, who wrote the script along with Charles Spano, presents a singular vision, also acting as producer, editor, and costume designer for Embers. For her first feature-length film, she introduces herself as one of the new auteurs to look for on the independent film scene. Embers debuted at Slamdance, but all future endeavors from Carré are likely to next be seen at Telluride/Toronto/Venice. Anyone with the ability to make grand statements with such small gestures is bound for bigger and brighter things.
Embers is playing at the Fantasia International Film Festival.