Filmmakers love to explore memory problems—in the form of amnesia, dementia, manipulation, conflicting recollections of the past, you name it. And this thematic fascination isn’t limited to any one movie genre; it’s the one thing Overboard, Memento, and Rashomon all have in common.
But for our purposes today, we’re specifically looking at science fiction movies—so, sorry, fans of the Bourne movies, Shutter Island, Angel Heart, Spellbound, Desperately Seeking Susan, The Notebook, The Manchurian Candidate, and on and on. And while there are tons of sci-fi movies that use memory as a plot device, here are 12 of our favorites.
Paul Verhoeven’s Philip K. Dick-inspired thriller gave Arnold Schwarzenegger one of his best roles as Quaid, a man who becomes so obsessed with his recurring dreams of Mars that he decides to take a “dream vacation” via Rekall, a company that can implant exciting memories into the minds of paying customers. Things go sideways when the Rekall tech seemingly unlocks Quaid’s real memories of being a secret agent on Mars, which leads him to question everything he believes to be true about his life. Filled with non-stop action, a mind-bending plot, a killer cast (everyone is great, but special props to villainous conspirators Michael Ironside and Sharon Stone), and iconic moments—pick your favorite: the three-breasted sex worker, perhaps, or “Get your ass to Mars!”—Total Recall is both bombastic 1990s thriller and a sci-fi classic for good reason. (And it holds up, which is why we will not be discussing the very unnecessary 2012 remake.)
At different times in Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s dizzy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Clementine (Kate Winslet) and Joel (Jim Carrey) have their memories erased to ease the heartbreak they both feel when their relationship ends. (Of course, that doesn’t stop them from being drawn back together again.) Much of the movie takes place within Joel’s mind-wipe, giving us a unique perspective on what drove the couple apart—but also what drew them together, as an unconscious Joel rebels against the procedure and tries to preserve the happy memories he cherishes from his time with Clementine while he’s re-living them. There’s also a concurrent plot about the bumbling technicians—including Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, and Elijah Wood—who work for Lacuna, the company that invented Eternal Sunshine’s memory-erasing machine; some of them have also subjected themselves to it but have, naturally, forgotten the entire experience. Though the movie is high-concept sci-fi at its most imaginative, the basic story is incredibly relatable. Anyone who’s been through a devastatingly painful breakup can relate to these characters.
Cameron Crowe’s 2001 remake of Alejandro Aménabar’s Spanish-language brain teaser Open Your Eyes stars Tom Cruise as David Aames, a rich playboy whose face is horribly disfigured in a car accident caused by his obsessed ex (Cameron Diaz). Lucky for him, he’s able to have his perfect features restored and pick right back up with his new love, Sofia (Penélope Cruz)...but all is not what it seems, and David’s life careens from charmed to nightmarish when he’s accused of murder. But that may not be what it seems, either. Vanilla Sky’s convoluted plot doesn’t completely come together at the end, but it’s at its most interesting when bits of David’s memory and subconscious play tricks not just on David, but on the audience, too—as when we realize he’s jumbled a tender moment with Sofia with a famous Bob Dylan album cover.
Do memories count if you’re not actually human? Both Blade Runner movies (like Total Recall, inspired by Philip K. Dick) feature replicant characters who fervently believe their memories are real. In the original film, Rachael (Sean Young) doesn’t initially know that she’s not a real human, in large part because her recollections of her childhood are so vivid. In Blade Runner 2049, K (Ryan Gosling) is well aware that he’s a “skin job,” but begins to suspect he might be the sought-after child born to Rachael and Deckard (Harrison Ford) when he visits an orphanage and finds a small toy horse stashed exactly where he (seemingly) remembers leaving it. Both Blade Runners point out how important memories really are in constructing individual identities; it’s no wonder its characters are devastated when they realize their minds have been manipulated to believe things that aren’t authentic.
Kathryn Bigelow directed this 1995 thriller, which is set in a dystopian, neon-noir version of 1999 Los Angeles that might not make it past the millennium. It revolves around illegal brain-jacking tech that can record memories and physical sensations, allowing the user to relive someone else’s real experiences...lurid thrills preferred, of course. An ex-cop (Ralph Fiennes) who’s now a player in the black market gets drawn into a murder mystery involving his ex-girlfriend, the music industry, and corrupt LAPD officers; the case hinges on the various incriminating “SQUID” recordings that function more or less like high-tech breadcrumbs leading back to the culprit. Strange Days (which was co-written by James Cameron) is obviously part of the virtual-reality fascination that was so big in 1990s movies (Virtuosity also came out in 1995). But it also kind of predicted the current, social media-spawned frenzy to record every detail of our lives—lurid and otherwise—to be shared with any stranger with an internet connection and an ounce of voyeuristic interest.
Julianne Moore plays Tully, a mother grieving the loss of her young son in a plane crash. Thing is, everyone around her, including her husband, her best friend, and her doctor, are like, “Uh, you never had a son in the first place!” She’s convinced that the boy was real, though, and her belief grows even stronger when she encounters a fellow parent (Dominic West) who believes his own daughter has also been similarly erased from existence. Things get even weirder when Tully’s husband stops recognizing his own wife. Tully’s nightmare is ultimately revealed to be part of a larger, rather horrific scheme designed to prey on memories—and in Tully’s case, test the strength of her motherly love.
Director and co-writer Claire Carré’s quietly intelligent, gorgeously-shot debut feature is set in a post-apocalyptic world where survivors must grapple not only with living in an abandoned wasteland—but also with the fact that almost everyone has some form of amnesia, part of the lingering effects of a devastating global epidemic. Unlike many other films on this list, Embers isn’t special effects-focused; instead, it concentrates on its characters, tracing how each of them deals with the ongoing frustration of constant forgetfulness. The trailer focuses on a couple (played by Jason Ritter and Iva Gocheva) who suspect they should be together based on the fact that they have matching bracelets made of yarn...though they just can’t quite remember exactly what the other means to them. But Embers is more than just the story of fleeing romance; it’s an ensemble film that follows various stories, relationships, and existential struggles to find meaning in a world without any memories.
Alex Proyas (The Crow) directed this stylized tale that centers on Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), a man who awakes with amnesia, only to find he’s the chief suspect in a string of murders. But this is no ordinary film noir. The titular city, a place where the sun never shines, is controlled by a group called the Strangers; they’re able to dramatically alter the physical landscape as well as infiltrate the minds of residents, changing individual identities and injecting new memories at every stroke of midnight. A lot of Dark City’s appeal comes from its eye-candy status, but the story is thoughtful, too, especially when Murdoch reconnects with his wife (Jennifer Connelly), who makes a very good case that even without memories to hold onto, love really can conquer all. Well, having some outstandingly powerful telekinetic powers also helps.
A robust cast (Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgård, Katie Holmes, and there’s even a somewhat distracting Taylor Swift cameo) elevates Phillip Noyce’s adaptation of Lois Lowry’s dystopian novel. It’s about a society where the pursuit of order and perfection has come at the expense of emotions, free-thinking, and creative expression—basically, anything that might upset the status quo. A teenaged boy named Jonas (Brenton Thwaites, soon to be seen as Dick Grayson on Titans) is informed that his prescribed career will be taking over from Bridges’ character as “receiver” of the community’s collective memories. But once “the Giver” begins to pass on his knowledge, the kid realizes exactly what his life has been missing—not just the power of memory, but also things like fear, joy, love, and excitement—and he can’t suppress his urge to share what he’s learned with everyone else. (The Giver illustrates his awakening literally, shifting the movie’s palette from monochrome grey to lush and colorful.) Bridges is great as the gruff, weary teacher, and the story offers a familiar yet earnest cautionary tale about the perils of conformity—with suppressed memories representing the greatest loss of all.
The 1972 original (by Andrei Tarkovsky) and the 2002 remake (by Steven Soderbergh) are both based on Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel, and they both explore what happens to the minds of astronauts who are orbiting a strangely powerful, watery planet called Solaris. Everyone, including main character Kelvin (played in the different versions by Donatas Banionis and George Clooney), has troubling hallucinations that seem to be ripped directly from their memories. Troubling, because they feel so real, in a very tangible sense. The main story revolves around Kelvin reconnecting with a remarkably lifelike copy of his beloved, who died by suicide years before—a tragedy that he still believes is his fault. The Tarkovsky adaptation of Solaris is the only version that’s praised as a masterpiece (which it is), but the Soderbergh take is reasonably true to the story’s introspective, emotionally complex narrative. However, it is also the movie remembered for offering up a glimpse of Clooney’s bare posterior—a memory you may or may not want to have burnished into your own mind.
A colony ship containing all that’s left of humankind heads toward an Earth-like planet, hoping against hope for a fresh start. It’s unfortunate, then, that on the very long journey, a crew member who’s out of stasis for his shift watching over the mission succumbs to a sort of deep-space psychosis. His behavior sets in motion a chain of events that prematurely awakens a group of passengers; flash-forward many years later, and the ship is home to a race of cannibalistic mutant humanoids who’ve developed some Mad Max-in-space survival tactics. When the latest team of crew members are automatically brought out of hypersleep for their shift, they find themselves amid some spectacularly creepy chaos. As Bower (Ben Foster) tries to figure out WTF is going on, Payton (Dennis Quaid) slowly begins to realize he’s forgotten who he really is. There’s some Fight Club-style identity crisis at work here, but Pandorum also digs into what the traumatic mental effects of a one-way trip through deep space might be like—and that includes some very concerning memory loss.
Ok, so the plot of Men in Black has a lot more going on than memory loss, but one of the series’ trademark running gags has to do with the “neuralyzers” that the agents carry. Anytime anyone outside the agency witnesses some alien activity, it’s one quick flash of light and all is instantly forgotten. Even better, the wielder of the neuralyzer has a few moments while the target is recovering to suggest a cover story—and, if Will Smith’s Agent J has anything to say about it, offer them some life-improvement advice, too: “Hire a decorator to come in here quick, because...damn.”