Memento (3-Disc Special Edition) Review
By now, everyone should have seen Memento. (Yes, even little kids in Nairobi and that ancient geezer living in a cave outside Kathmandu. After all, he gets cable.) Seriously, though, I'm sure anyone tuning into this write-up has had ample opportunity to see this fine film – it did come out in 2000 – and has probably already done so several times. In short, gentle reader, what I imagine you are here for is not Yet Another Examination of How Interesting Memento Is™. Anyone contemplating the purchase of a 3-disc special edition is almost certainly already convinced the film stands on its own merits.
No, if the kind of buzz I'm seeing on the Net is any indication, what most of you desperately want to know is simply, 'Is this the version of Memento to own?' (Or, put more bluntly, 'Should I upgrade from the R1 Limited Edition?') Now these are questions I'm more than happy to help you with, seeing as they're the very ones I was asking myself when I heard about this new release. There's only one small snag... when I went to reference the DVD Times review of the R1 LE, I discovered to my great surprise that there isn't one.
So this review will be somewhat unusual in that, while it focuses primarily on the new R2 SE, I'm going to have to lay a bit of the groundwork for a comparison with the R1 LE so you lot can make an informed decision as to which you'd prefer to have take place of pride on your DVD shelf. Please bear with me.
OK, not being entirely heartless, I'll cave and provide an overview for anyone who has merely chanced upon this write-up and needs convincing that Memento is worth their time. Everyone else, see you at the next section.
The chain of events that led to this film is rather interesting. Back when he was a student at Georgetown University, Jonathan Nolan was intrigued to learn of an actual medical condition known as anterograde amnesia, whereby (unlike the more commonly-understood retrograde amnesia) memories prior to the incidence of trauma are perfectly intact, but the subject finds it impossible to form any new long-term memories from that point onwards.
Rolling the idea about in his head a while, he put pen to paper and came up with 'Memento Mori', a short story that explores the dramatic implications of how someone suffering from this condition (and one brought on not by illness or accident, but by a violent attack) might go about dealing with it. On a long cross-country drive across America, Jonathan laid out the premise to his older brother Christopher, who had recently enjoyed a quiet success on his directorial debut with the 1998 Following... and who therefore had a bit of capital (both in the way of finance and reputation) to embark upon a larger project. Seized by the concept, he obtained his brother's permission to work up a feature-length screenplay and thus was Memento born.
Considering that it was to be only his second film, the cast Nolan managed to assemble for the production turned out very respectable performances all around. For the essential core trinity of roles, he managed to get Guy Pearce (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, L.A. Confidential), Joe Pantoliano (Empire of the Sun, The Fugitive, The Matrix) , and Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix, Chocolat)... and even the supporting role of Sammy Jankis is played admirably by seasoned character actor Stephen Tobolowsky.
At it's most basic, Memento is the story of a man, Leonard Shelby, seeking revenge for the murder of his wife. If anything, the added layer of complexity introduced by the fact that Leonard suffers from anterograde amnesia only serves to underscore the film noir sensibilities already present, including the usual inability of the protagonist to trust those around him, the unreliability of information as a whole, and the themes of isolation in the face of a cold and unsympathetic world where everyone he meets has his or her own agenda.
However, what makes the film truly unique is its fractured narrative... one which directly parallels both the lead character's mental condition and his state of mind. While the story itself is arguably linear, it is presented in temporal chunks of less than 15 minutes each (the maximum length of time Leonard can keep his current batch of short-term memories in focus). And while most people would say that Memento is a film that plays backwards, this is an oversimplification; in fact, what we have here is a narrative that plays simultaneously from both ends to the middle. The way the story is structured, Nolan takes highly-subjective colour sequences (representing Leonard's perspective) starting with the very last scene and moving backwards in time, and intercuts them in alternating fashion with considerably shorter black-and-white segments (meant to present a more objective, 'documentary style' viewpoint of his situation) that begin with the very first scene and move forwards in time.
While the film's harsher critics have lambasted this as nothing more than a clever device to make a straightforward story seem more complicated than it is, in my opinion they've completely missed the point. The truth that is evident to anyone who has watched the 'chronological order edit' (which has been available as an easter egg on half of the DVD releases prior to this) is that Memento only achieves its fullest dramatic potential – not merely complexity – when presented as it was originally written. The only way for the audience to 'get into the head' of the protagonist is through this interleaved structure, and indeed there are at least half a dozen quite remarkable scenes in the film which lose most of their impact if time is forced to flow conventionally forward.
The actual story content being identical (there is not a single DVD version of Memento that has suffered any cuts whatsoever), the most important comparison factor for most people becomes the image quality itself. Both the 2-disc R1 LE and this new 3-disc SE feature an absolutely gorgeous anamorphic transfer presented in the film's original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, so you need not worry about casual cropping by the distributors. (In fact, so far only the Dutch R2 release has had the temerity to reformat this film to 1.78:1.)
Having viewed both versions side by side, however, certain tendencies in the picture quality are evident. I did a frame-to-frame comparison of about 20 representative stills from both DVDs, and while there isn't room to fit them all in, whenever you see a matched pair of images, the left one is from the R1 LE and the right one is from the R2 SE. (All single pictures elsewhere in this review are naturally from the R2 SE alone.) In all cases the images are completely colour/gamma unretouched... they have only been resized to fit the constraints of the DVD Times format.
The first major difference is in the tone of the two prints; as a general rule, the R1 LE is slightly warmer and its colours somewhat richer than the R2 SE. Now, those of you who have been to the USA and watched TV there may point out that this is par for the course, what with the inclination of such broadcasts towards the red end of spectrum – particularly when it comes to skin tones, which sometimes appear too orange. Fortunately we're not talking about a difference of quite that magnitude between these DVDs; the hues on the R1 LE, while deeper, do not become unrealistic... and those on the R2 SE, while decidedly cooler, do not seem washed out or overly pale. The only thing to bear in mind is that, as a side effect, the R1 LE tends to feel darker and the R2 SE brighter.
However, the second key difference is less subjective; in the vast majority of frames I checked, the R1 LE evinces superior shadow detail to the R2 SE. This result frankly puzzles me as I had assumed that the R1, trending towards deeper hues and by and large feeling a touch darker than the new R2, would get a bit murky in the shadows. But if anything the opposite is true... while certain daytime scenes on the R1 LE appear a bit dingy compared to the brighter feel of the R2 SE, these are never ones involving lots of shadow detail. (The most obvious examples of the latter being any of the black-and-white footage, all of which is limned in stark lighting and heavily laden in shadow.) I've provided both a B&W and a colour comparison of shadow detail below.
That said, I should note that there were 1 or 2 frames that bucked the trend in each case, so these visual characteristics are not necessarily consistent across the entirety of each release. The fact is, the video on both the R1 LE and the R2 SE looks spectacular. There is a crispness to both prints that you only get from a well-supervised anamorphic transfer, the colour palette (be it slightly warmer or slightly cooler) hand-selected by Nolan & Co. gives Memento a unique look, and the only place visible grain can be found is in the black-and-white 'documentary' sequences... and that is intrinsic to the type of film used, not due to any flaw in the encoding process. Speaking of which, this being such a recent production, the video masters are obviously pristine; I didn't spot more than a handful of dust marks ¬– and no scratches whatsoever – in the course of watching either the theatrical release or the chronological version (more on which later). Nor is there any macroblocking or rainbowing to speak of.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that you're unlikely to choose wrong either way. Whether you prefer the picture on the R1 LE or the R2 SE is going to be more a matter of personal taste.
It's an even closer call when it comes to audio, but the R2 SE noses ahead of the R1 LE in this department. Why? Well, both feature English Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 soundtracks on the theatrical version – and as far as I can tell by spot-checking the audio on my surround speakers setup, there's no difference between the two DVD releases – but only the R2 SE provides these same two soundtrack options on the chronological version. (The R1 LE only offers the 'chronological order edit' in DD 2.0.)
There's not a lot more to add. As Raphael observed in his review of the 1-disc R2 version, Memento isn't the kind of film that goes in for a lot of heavy action sequences that would benefit most strongly from these 5.1 soundtracks, but I would say that the ones on the R1 LE and R2 SE are nonetheless reasonably expansive. For one thing, there are always scenes like the 'I'm chasing this guy... no, he's chasing me' scenario which will do well out of 5.1... and even in its more dialogue-driven moments, the rear soundstage is put to good use by edgy atmospheric music and sound effects designed to disorient the audience and introduce a subconscious undercurrent of psychological tension. (Case in point being the rather unnerving sounds going on beneath Pearce's dialogue during any of the early black-and-white segments.
Ah, a fine example of something that was done so well that it actually annoyed the hell out of people is the brilliant menu design on the R1 LE. Never before or since have I encountered disc menus which more creatively (and, for that matter, accurately) reflect the nature of the material contained on the DVD. They still stand as a landmark in just what the DVD format is capable of... but, unfortunately, they are by no means user-friendly. While the designers – which, yes, include Christopher Nolan himself – deserve accolades for the work, many people have justifiably commented that these menus make navigating the feature set nearly impossible for the casual viewer. (For that matter, even the 1-disc R2 version sounds as if it was no picnic in the navigation department, even if it didn't force the end user to take a mock psychological analysis.)
So it comes as no surprise that many fans have been waiting with baited breath to see if this new 3-disc R2 SE would finally break 'the curse of the Memento menus' and deliver something a bit more standard and easy to work with. The good news is, not only does it succeed in this respect, but it does so while still maintaining a great sense of panache! To say that the menus on the R2 SE are sexy and stylish (particularly on the first disc) would be something of an understatement. For me at least, it's hard to resist the appeal of a menu system that uses a topless male figure as the central motif.
The menus on the first disc are the most clever and in keeping with the film, seeing as all of the selections take the form of tattoos placed strategically on his body (which, hypnotically and rather eerily, you can actually see breathing in and out while you decide just where you want to go next). There are lovely transitions between each sub-menu, with the camera whipping around to focus on different sections of his torso... and at seemingly-random points you hear the voice of Leonard Shelby murmuring some of his more memorable lines from the film. All this is presented in Dolby 5.1 too, and it can be a bit worrying to hear voices and noises coming at you from all corners of the room.
The menus on the second and third discs are more restrained, as instead of tattoos we simply have running scenes from Memento projected onto the male figure in black-and-white. Disc two has a light figure highlighted against a dark background, while disc three goes with a pseudo photographic negative effect of the same (dark figure against a light background). On all three DVDs, the menu selections are easy-to-navigate and offer fast access times throughout. I only ran across two easter eggs, and even they are fairly straightforward (details in the next section). Regardless, although I've only included a representative image here, a complete set of menu pictures from this release can be found in Dave Foster's recent news item.
I think it's safe to say that we expect a 3-disc special edition to be stuffed overflowing with extras... and the R2 SE is. The only problem is, it's not precisely packed with new special features. In fact, the only extra that has not been previously released (in one form or another) on previous versions of Memento is the relatively-brief Interview with Guy Pearce.
That said, the R2 SE does have slightly more to offer the viewer than the R1 LE... and with the exception of an additional trailer (and of course, its super-funky menus), the R1 LE doesn't really have anything the R2 SE doesn't. And before you ask, no, these studios still haven't learned to make subtitles available on special features. (Not even one of them.) Anyway, let's move on to an examination of what you can expect to find on each disc...
First off, there's the excellent audio commentary by writer/director Christopher Nolan. This is the exact same commentary that's been made available on both the R1 LE and German R2 releases... and yes, it does include the 3 alternate endings to the commentary, which I always thought was a nice touch. (Although it can be a pain resetting your DVD player time and time again in an attempt to hear them all, since each ending is chosen randomly.) I have to confess that I'm a bit disappointed that in all this time, no additional commentary has been recorded featuring Guy Pearce, Joey Pants, or Carrie-Anne Moss; as most of the available DVD features are presented from Chris Nolan's perspective, it would be good to get someone else's take on it for comparison.
Also on this disc is an undocumented special feature, the tattoo gallery comparing early production sketches of the intended designs to the actual final tattoos as they appear on Guy. This is only available if, the very first time you visit the 'audio' sub-menu, you press the right arrow button on your DVD remote, moving the selection towards the tattoo on the model's left arm... if you return to the 'audio' menu later, it will zoom in on the model's lower torso and his arms won't be visible.
When you pop the second disc in, you'll be presented with a very sparse selection of extras, which should clue you in immediately to the fact that there is something else rather large hidden on this DVD. Nor would you be wrong; if you move the selection line down to the bottommost option, 'Biographies', and then press that ever-useful right arrow button, you'll be taken to the chronological version of Memento, and in glorious Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS 5.1 to boot! If you've never thought this was worth watching, think again... it's fascinating just how different a film it becomes. (And no, it's not boring to watch in chronological order.)
But getting back to the 'non-tricky' special features, this disc provides an interview with Christopher Nolan, an interview with Guy Pearce, an 'Anatomy of a Scene' featurette, and actor biographies... the first and last of which will already be familiar to those of you who own the 1-disc R2 version, and the third of which to those who have the R1 LE. But for those of you who have been holding out on a purchase of Memento, here's a basic run-down.
The interview with Christopher Nolan is a 24-minute on-stage affair before a live audience, and ends with a fairly extensive Q&A session. Produced as an Independent Feature Project by the IFC (specifically as part of their 'Independent Focus' series), this interview gives Nolan a chance to go into greater detail regarding the film noir aspects of Memento, as well as delving into discussions of time sense, the unreliable narrator, the actual medical condition of anterograde amnesia, and how Guy Pearce as an actor – somewhat ironically – actually had a fantastic memory. He also contrasts Memento with his first film, Following. (For instance, while the latter was shot catch-as-catch-can at weekends over the course of a year, the former was filmed at a blistering pace in 25 days flat.)
The 13-minute interview with Guy Pearce was apparently recorded in a bar and features the usual sorts of content you'd expect from such a short session: what attracted him to the script in the first place, his initial and subsequent takes on the character of Leonard Shelby, how he prepared for the role, and the actual production methods used to create the distinct look of Memento.
One in yet another popular series of featurettes (this time produced by the Sundance Channel), the 25 minutes of 'Anatomy of a Scene' seems to fly by, filled as it is with interesting information and nicely edited together. Unfortunately, as is always the pitfall of extras focusing on one individual, there is a lot of overlap in content between this one, the above interview, and the audio commentary on disc 1.
Finally we have biographies of Christopher Nolan, Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Joe Pantoliano, presented as static screens done as mock-ups of California driver's licences.
A lot of people have been wondering how you could possibly need 3 discs for this particular Special Edition. Well, the answer is that the film essentially appears three times on the R2 SE. The theatrical release is on disc 1, the chronological version is on disc 2, and here we have the complete shooting script for Memento accompanied by the theatrical cut playing once again, this time in a small insert box at lower right. It has to be said, this script-to-film comparison is a really nice feature, as it lets you see all of the places where the actors did marvellous ad-lib work. (Something you're made aware of by Nolan in his audio commentary, but which really strikes home when you're watching scenes and reading the script at the same time.)
Moving beyond this, another nice improvement on a feature present in prior releases is a new presentation of 'Memento Mori'. Once again, the complete short story is provided, but whereas this was a text-only offering on other DVDs, here it is read by Jonathan Nolan himself and accompanied by a surreal montage of brief, atmospheric video (and sound) clips that generally reinforce – and sometimes contrast starkly with – the narrative itself. I will confess that while I never quite got around to reading the short story on my R1 LE, it was a pleasure to spend 34 minutes watching and listening to it on the R2 SE.
Next on the menu are a set of five galleries containing almost 70 images in toto, subdivided into 40 production stills and sketches (the latter section actually containing some storyboards as well), 10 screens of props, 7 screens of international poster art, 4 screens of concept art and bootleg cover art, and 17 pages from the production journal.
Always appreciated, the studio has also seen fit to provide a complete DVD version of the original promotional website for Memento (which for those of you who wish to view it in its full online glory is still available at www.otnemem.com).
Rounding out the list of special features, we have the international trailer, which I don't remember catching in the cinema but which is actually quite good and doesn't ruin anything.
And so there you have it. In the final assessment, I would have to recommend the R2 SE over the R1 LE, if only for the slightly-expanded spectrum of special features. (However, I admit I'll always have a warm place in my heart for those insane menus on the American release and that clever packaging made out to look like a psychological dossier.) When it comes to the question of which release has superior picture quality, it's a bit of a toss-up; the R1 LE seems to do better in scenes that rely heavily on shadow detail, but the R2 SE is, on balance, a brighter print. Fortunately, both releases look sharp and sound great, so don't feel bad if you already own the R1 LE and aren't sure if you need to upgrade.