Lost Memories: Memento & The Bourne Identity

Imagine you lose your memory and forget your past. Everyone becomes a stranger… What would you do? Would you reinvent yourself or try to find your identity? Memory loss is a key feature in Memento and The Bourne Identity. I’m looking into both films in one article.

Memento (2000)

Leonard (Guy Pearce) looks at a photograph of a dead guy when Memento starts. The sequence plays backwards and the photo reverts back to its underdeveloped state. It enters the camera before we see the person who has taken the photo at the scene of the crime. Straight away, we question who is this man and why was he killed? The film then continues, switching between black and white and colour sequences. Our hero, Leonard can’t form new memories. After about fifteen minutes, everything gets wiped out. It’s the stuff of nightmares, especially since he’s investigating the source of the trauma: the person who attacked him and killed his wife.

Using a fragmented, nonlinear narrative, the film puts us in the man’s shoes – or rather, in his brain. It’s not an easy watch and requires a second viewing to make sense of it all. But, it’s not confusing for the sake of it. Memento‘s structure simulates the mental state of Leonard so we better understand his condition. This effect keeps the audience engaged and confused, just like Leonard. Christopher Nolan said he wanted to “give the audience the experience of not being able to remember things”, so we see the world from Leonard’s perspective.

Unlike The Bourne Identity, which is an action-thriller, Memento is a psychological-puzzle-film. Its trickery echoes the plotting of classic detective movies, but Christopher Nolan has put his own stamp on the genre. Instead of pulling the rug out from under the audience, Nolan uses memory loss as a conceptual twist. Leonard’s condition is linked to the flow of the narrative, as he uses tattoos and scribbled notes to track information he won’t remember. He might not be Sherlock Holmes and there’s no big bad hiding in the shadows, but this is a detective story at heart.

Guy Pearce in Memento

The internal logic of the story makes sense, despite the mind-bending structure. Different strings of meaning reveal clues and contexts for the next scene. The viewer is never quite sure what’s going on, but the narrative structure makes Memento one of the most unique and thrilling films around.

Viewers play detective with Leonard and you’re forced to think the same way as he does. Our perceptions get shattered as each scene jumps back in time. I enjoyed having to figure out what was what, and overall, it’s a great movie. The concept works brilliantly.

The Bourne Identity (2002)

As with many action franchises, the quality of the Bourne series got lost after the second and third sequel. The Bourne Identity is a smart action movie that mostly focuses on character and plot, of which memory is a crucial part. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is the assumed name of a man who has no memory of who he is. Plucked out of the Mediterranean sea, he’s a blank canvas with gunshot wounds.

After recovering from his ordeal, Bourne soon learns he has links to the CIA, which send out agents to take him down. He discovers a violent past he doesn’t remember and races to piece together his former life. Whereas Memento is a sedate, stylish Neo-Noir, The Bourne Identity becomes a high-intensity thriller. Yet, just the same, it’s a film where we ask questions, like “Who really is Jason Bourne?” or “Where did he come from?”

I suspect Bourne’s form of amnesia isn’t well-known to neurologists because it’s never explained how he remembers his combat training. But it’s convenient for plotting, as Bourne uses his skills to fight the people hunting him. Contrivances let The Bourne Identity down and the CIA conspiracy angle is a less engaging aspect. However, the action scenes are believable and there are no gadgets. Memento is by far the better film, but The Bourne Identity remains exciting, fresh for its time, with only minimal implausibilities.



Two releases made with flair and style, both of which have aged well. Memento is a great cult movie that everyone should see while The Bourne Identity is great entertainment. Whether you’re a fan of thrillers and action films, or you just enjoy smart cinema, these picks are for you. They’re both first-class examples of movies that deal with the loss of memory, and how it can reshape your existence.

Liked this? Read more reviews of films about memory loss here!


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