The Dark Glass of Memory

This is one of my more rambling thinking-out-loud posts, I’m afraid, which was in part prompted by Twitter.

Last week, Adam Christopher (@ghostfinder) mentioned he’d  just seen Dark City for the first time. I love Dark City: it’s probably the only film I’ve seen twice at the cinema – and this was the big old theatre/cinema in the town where I grew up, where you could sit in the balcony a floor and a half up and lean over the rail to drop popcorn on other people’s heads. Not that I ever did that, of course, because that would be childish and irresponsible and… yeah. Where was I? Ah, yes.

And boy, but that trailer makes it look like one of David Lynch’s bad dreams, doesn’t it?

I remember this film getting deep under my skin when I first saw it – it was that central conceit of memory and its effect on identity which did it. I was reading a few psychology books around that time – I was a strange teenager, I really was – and had come up against the concept of false memories (go here for a slightly less dry explanation) and Dark City really tapped into that idea.

It must have been out about the same time as The Matrix – another film which messes with reality and memory, and blows stuff up as it goes (full disclosure: I really, really, really don’t like The Matrix.) so there was obviously something in the water in Hollywood at the time.

As Adam quite rightly pointed out on Twitter, it’s a common concept in SF: after all, Blade Runner hurls itself into mind as a perfect example – and that’s without even stopping to think about others out there. But it’s one of my favourites: keep your spaceships and your FTL (leave me the big guns and plasma cannons though, please) because I like getting my head around whether we’re more than the sum of our memories and our experiences.

Plato’s cave; Russell’s “five minute” hypothesis (or “Last Thursdayism“)… they’re ideas which are simple to grasp, thanks to much cleverer people than me doing all the intellectual heavy lifting, but they blow my mind. It’s one of the things I love about Inception: beneath the heist film and the cities that fold up on themselves, there’s a discussion about the imperfection of memory going on. Maybe on the second level…

Do memories make us who we are – and if our memories turn out to be false, does that mean we’ve gone wrong somehow, followed a path that we shouldn’t have? Does a badly-recalled or deliberately falsified memory ripple out to change everything we are, or could have been?

And what happens if they’re turned against us?

Interestingly, I was watching Push again over the weekend – I saw it a couple of years ago and had largely forgotten it – but I realised it was another “doubting your memory” movie, at least in places. It’s maybe not the greatest film ever (although I loved the idea of it using Hong Kong as a modern-day Casablanca: the place where everyone washes up when they don’t want to be found) but I’m surprisingly OK with that. Amazing what I’ll let you get away with if you drop some mental shenanigans into the mix.


It’s funny, really, because while I was thinking about all this, I realised I’ve even got it in my own book – the idea of memory and what it means. Admittedly, it’s pretty buried under the angels and the M1911A1s*, but it’s there. Which just goes to show, I guess, that some things stick – whether you remember it or not…

So. To ramble to the point: truth v. memory. In film, and books, and anything else you care to mention. Like it? Does it interest you, or is it just too goshdarn fiddly? Where’ve you seen it done well… and where’ve you seen it done badly? This one’s open to the floor – so make the most of it.

Or I’ll start talking again.


*Anyone with an eye for trivia: you might want to remember that. And don’t say I never give you anything…



  1. speaking of INCEPTION, MEMENTO does memory quite well. and backwards even! DARK CITY is classic! bought the deluxe something-or-other DVD fancy set thingummy at some point; but then i bought the deluxe DVD whatsits for LEGEND and KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE, so what do i know? HA!

  2. I haven’t seen to many of these movies. The reason being mainly that I don’t watch movies that often. But I really liked “Jacob’s Ladder”, it’s a great movie and you really need to see it if you haven’t already.

  3. Memento was one of the other films I had at the back of my mind here, too: memory and reality and how easy it is to mistake one for the other. I’m pleased to see other people agree! Of course, I had to let someone else bring it up because of the whole fangirl thing I have going on for Christopher Nolan… 😉

  4. Cool article – cheers! Something that inspired ‘Inception’ is Satoshi Kon’s ‘Paprika’, so you may want to check that out as well. I too loved ‘Dark City’ – flawed masterpiece.

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