In a post-apocalyptic world where humans have lost the ability to sustain short- and long-term memories, survivors have to live in the moment. Claire Carre’s debut feature could be described as a mass-scale “Memento,” but that thumbnail sketch misses both the pic’s impressive conceptual breadth and its numbing dramatic stasis. Exploring five different narrative tracks, only two of which ever intersect, “Embers” reflects on memory as the connective tissue that binds us to our consciences and to each other, but it’s too much premise for Carre’s thinly scripted mood piece to realize over 86 minutes. Commercial prospects seem limited to the briefest of runs in the biggest of cities, but Carre’s clear intelligence, resourcefulness and vision combine to make this calling card tough to forget.
With the blighted cityscape of Gary, Ind., doubling all too plausibly for the nomadic wastelands of the future, “Embers” opens with the awkward spectacle of lovers who wake up in bed together, but don’t recognize each other. Guy (Jason Ritter) and Girl (Iva Gocheva) don’t remember their own names, but they follow the mutual intuition that they should act as a couple, even though the cycle will repeat itself whenever they fall asleep again. Guy and Girl wander the ruins in search of canned goods and a new place to settle down, but like everyone else, they’re condemned to the present — not knowing where they’re going and not knowing where they’ve been.
Other characters take up their own space in the film, including an orphaned boy (Silvan Friedman) who clings to any parental figure he encounters and an intellectual (Tucker Smallwood) who has devised a system for navigating the woods and doing simple things like fetching water and starting a fire. There’s also a restless young man (Karl Glusman) whose violent impulses are met with terrible consequences. Meanwhile, off in a bunker tucked in some faraway countryside, the privileged Miranda (Greta Fernandez) hasn’t been touched by the memory virus, but her state-of-the-art facility has become like a tech prison and she longs to risk the open air.
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Though the boy and the intellectual do cross paths, Carre and her co-screenwriter, Charles Spano, keep the other subplots discrete, perhaps to emphasize the emotional and philosophical conundrums unique to each of them. If Guy and Girl represent the challenge of sustaining love without memory and Miranda represents the human yearning for freedom, then it wouldn’t make much sense to cross-pollinate the two stories. But Carre never quite makes them rhyme, either. Though the look and tone of “Embers” coalesce in a unified blue-gray dirge, the narrative threads often feel like severely undernourished segments in an anthology film. The scope of the pic is too narrow to accommodate the characters with more than a few brushstrokes.
The “Memento” comparisons are not entirely fair, because Christopher Nolan’s film had separate concerns about selective memory and the human capacity for self-deception. But the big difference between the two is Carre’s reluctance to dramatize the situation, which keeps her themes bound to the abstract and theoretical. “Embers” offers a series of compelling premises and never follows through on them, content to drift along on its characters’ dull malaise and allow self-conscious visual poetry to stand in for real emotion.
Still, Carre’s wan follow-through doesn’t mean “Ember” isn’t thought through deeply: Her multi-pronged approach yields insight into how memory works in personal relationships and in society at large, and the consequences of being “present” without a past. And working with production designer Chelsea Oliver and cinematographer Todd Antonio Somodevilla, Carre turns the condemned buildings of working-class Indiana into eerie alien terrain, populated by sad, bleary scavengers. In “Embers,” life experience flows through them like a sieve.