Film Reviews: Through The Lens Of A Scientist

by Dr Wong Kah Keng

Memento (2000)

Director: Christopher Nolan; Written By: Christopher Nolan & Jonathan Nolan; Editing: Dody Dorn; Starring: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Junior, Jorja Fox, Stephen Tobolowsky, Harriet Harris.

Note: Spoiler alert, read at your own discretion.
Memento: an object that you keep to remember a person, place or event.


Have you ever watched a film that makes you recall everything that has happened within the last 10 minutes? Essentially every 10 minutes? Such is the fun as well as challenge posed by Memento, a neo-noir thriller film.

Leonard Shelby (played by Guy Pearce) is on a revenge pursuit searching for an unknown murderer of his wife. He is embroiled in an incident culminating in his wife murdered and his short-term memory loss from a severe brain injury. Although he remembers his wife, what he does and who he is, he is unable to form new memories since the incident. Consequently, he relies on short notes, Polaroid shots, and even tattoos to remind him on things he chooses to remember. On his revenge mission, he is ‘assisted’ by two perpetual strangers: Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), a policeman, and Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), a bartender. The motives and performances of these three main characters will keep the audience edged on their seats as to not lose important pieces of information till the credits roll.

The real strength of Memento does not lie entirely on what the story is about but on how the story is presented. Conventional storytelling consists of the prologue, middle section and the ending, usually in chronological order. Memento is a film that unfolds backwards- the very first scene is the ending of the plot. The story is presented backwards in 10-minute colour segments, interluded by short, black-and-white segments that moves forward in chronological order. These colour and black- and-white segments converge at the climax that reveals the centrepiece of the story that, according to chronological order of the plot, is the middle section of the story.

This is the first scene of the film. And it is the ending of the story.

Watching the film is tantamount to riding a bus on a backward facing seat. When the bus stops and you look out the window, you are not entirely sure of the reason why it stops until the bus moves forward to reveal that you have just passed by a traffic light. However, the passenger opposite you (forward facing) would have already spotted the traffic light that lies ahead. Such is the sensation of watching the film i.e. we see the effects before the causes. Each colour segment of the film represents the effects of an earlier event.

Leonard Shelby uses Polaroid shots (among others) to record past events.

Many of us might be familiar with Nolan’s more recent works (the Batman trilogy, Inception ). Memento is one of Nolan’s earlier gems that showcased a genius already at work since the threshold of the millennia. Instead of the glitzy surroundings or elaborate costumes in his re- cent films, Memento is memorably set at a suburb with certain dilapidated settings that add an extra touch of realism, involving the middle class and the criminals. The complex plot is matched by the cast members’ sophisticated performances, with particular mention on Joe Pantoliano’s (co-star of The Matrix ) incredibly equivocal performance that had viewers constantly pondering whether Teddy is a saviour or an enemy, or someone in between.

A Samaritan? Friend? Liar? An enemy? Joe Pantoliano’s ambiguous performance will have viewers scratching their heads till the very end.

While the film is not strictly a work of science-fiction, the extreme novelty of how the story is presented, putting the audience straight into the shoes of the protagonist suffering from short-term memory loss (a disorder known as ‘anterograde amnesia’ affecting the hippocampus of the brain), warrants it a place in this review section. Viewers will be continually challenged by the segmented plots to recall what has just happened, that is, challenging our own short-term memory. At such, the film renders the viewers to empathise with Leonard’s memory disorder by experiencing it on our own to a certain extent. This is the ultimate beauty of the film.

And based on the definition stated earlier, do you remember what memento is?

About the Author:

Wong Kah Keng is the Editor-in-Chief of the Scientific Malaysian Magazine (Issue 4) and a University Lecturer  at the School of Medical Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia.
He can be contacted at [email protected]. Find out more about Kah Keng by visiting his  Scientific Malaysian profile:

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