In cinema, romantic science-fiction is something special. Or sci-fi romance, if you prefer. This genre mash-up works exceptionally well because both elements are so defined by their cliches and standards. If we take the bare concepts of each to compliment the other, we get a break down into certain complexities that 90 minutes can’t always tackle competently.
How filmmakers choose to balance the two genres, what message they’re trying to convey and how essential sci-fi components are to the central relationship are all questions that can be asked of this niche segment of films and television. That’s where we begin, starting with (probably) the most universally beloved science-fiction romance of all time: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – The Necessity of Memory
Life is full of moments we wish we could forget. Just as humans can be kind, they can be fickle or cruel, and we hurt each other. Sometimes, in the depth of coping with personal disappointments and pain, it’s easy to wish that the event, or rather, the person who hurt us, could just become a blank space in the map of our life.
Enter Clementine and Joel. When we first meet them in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, their lives are a muddle and their meet cute is awkward. Joel is quiet and socially uncomfortable, whilst Clementine is impulsive and brash. Like many romantic relationships, on paper they shouldn’t work but there’s something there. Clementine challenges Joel out of his shyness, and Joel offers Clementine a caring intensity that she rarely meets.
As the film reveals, they’ve been lovers before, but have taken the steps to erase the each other from their memory in a process offered by a company called Lacuna Inc. We take a small reverse in time to see Joel undergo the erasing process, and fall back with him through his memories with Clementine. By the time he’s gone through a few, he knows that he doesn’t want to forget her anymore.
So far, so romantic. Yet what French director Michel Gondry and writer Charlie Kaufman do is give the film their strange flourish, with vivid imagery, practical visual effects and spliced narratives to displace the viewer alongside Joel as he races through his mind. Its refusal to explain every plot detail also makes Eternal Sunshine the complete opposite of those paint-by-numbers romances that populate cinemas, and it generally demands a re-watch to be fully appreciated.
Most importantly, the film doesn’t glamourise relationships but shows the horrible words that can be said in the heat of conflict, and the manipulation that can break down communication. Acclaimed as it is by critics – an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and 24th on the WGA’s ‘greatest ever’ list are just two markers of merit – romance genre fans sometimes leave with the description of ‘depressing’, rather than uplifting.
Not a conventional romance then, but what about the science fiction? It’s certainly not obtrusive – Clementine and Joel live perfectly ordinary lives aside from the very fact that Lacuna, and the erasing process, exists in the narrative. The company is not treated as a novelty but in the manner of a doctor’s surgery, and although Joel has some qualms over the safety of the procedure, the waiting room is mostly full. In a further step distancing the film from full unreality, Lacuna’s process isn’t even that far from becoming a real-life operation.
In providing this plot device, Kaufman uses it to explore the complete development and dissolution of a relationship, and what it means to be left with the rubble. Just as Joel is placed back sighing through their spiteful arguments, he finds himself unsettled by the warmth of moments that he’s forgotten without scientific assistance. Soon enough panic sets in, and dragging the memory-version of Clementine through his past, he screams – ‘I want to call it off!’
First and foremost, Eternal Sunshine reminds us of the formative power of memory. Good or bad, it evolves us in a way that nothing else can. As terrible as the tough times can get, they usually share space with some great ones too, and all of them contain lessons and harsh realities that can push us to shed a skin and try to reform, ready for the next challenge. Much as you might wish the memories weren’t there, they’re there for a reason.
That being said, the decision by Joel and Clementine at the end is still a brave one. Completely new to each other in their minds, they are confronted by their pet hates of each other on tape. Despite this knowledge of what they’ll grow to resent, they decide to try again, even if it means falling into the inevitable pattern all over again. At least this time, they’ll have memories they can keep.
As a science fiction romances, and just as a film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is exceptional and skilfully done. A remarkably simple concept, it nonetheless has the power to make us reassess the difficult memories in our life, to realise that the pain we now keep with us has had a role in making us the people we are.
Finally, for a film based on a science-fiction premise, it fuses fictional inventions effortlessly with a central relationship to give us an exceptionally grounded reflection of today’s imperfect romantic reality.
Part Two of Sci-Fi Love Stories is now available to read HERE.