Starts Like a Good Twilight Zone, Ends Like a Bad X-Files
[WARNING: This is the no pussy-footing, full-on spoilers review!]
The nation’s critics were not very kind to THE FORGOTTEN when it opened Friday. Although some acknowledged that the film has an intriguing premise and an effectively creepy atmosphere, many faulted the film for plot holes: “Raises more…questions than it answers,” said Rob Blackwelder of Splicedwire. The sentiment was echoed by Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly, who said that “each explanation for what’s going on holds less water than the last.”
Critics were correct to take aim a deficiencies in the film’s script, but they missed the bull’s eye by targeting plot credibility. The real problems are emotional and dramatic, and mostly they come in the final reel. They’re not enough to completely undermine the whole movie, but they do diminish the overall impact, taking something sinister and twisting it into a happy ending that comes too easily and therefore feels phony and unconvincing. In short, what begins as a first-rate TWILIGHT ZONE episode ends up turning into a second-rate X-FILES.
Julianne Moore plays Telly Paretta, a woman grieving over the loss of her nine-year-old son Sam, who died in a plane crash fourteen months ago. With the aid of her psychiatrist (Gary Sinise) and her sympathetic husband (Anthony Edwards), Telly seems on the way to recovery, but she is outraged when she finds her videotapes of Sam erased and a family photo of him replaced. Telly blames her husband for trying to force her to give up her memories of Sam, but her shrink lays a really heavy trip on her:
According to him, Sam never existed; Telly had a miscarriage fourteen months ago, and her memories are a hallucination, a product of her grief. That she no longer sees him is a sign of her recovery.
Telly refuses to believe what her doctor and her husband are telling her. She searches for evidence, but even the New York Times has been cleansed of any reference to the fatal plane crash. Telly hooks up with Ash Correll (Dominic West) whose daughter also died in the crash; unfortunately, Ash doesn’t remember his daughter.
These early scenes are among the best in the film. The emotional hook for the audience to relate to Moore is strong, and she is perfectly cast. There is something fragile about her that makes her vulnerable; she can hint at the inner strength that will see her through without making her character’s ultimate victory seem like a foregone conclusion.
West is also quite good. His early drunk act avoids the obvious hammy gestures that afflict so many actors playing this kind of role. He seems like someone drinking to drown his grief, even when he doesn’t remember the source of that grief, and it’s amusing to see Telly confront a character whose grip on reality is fuzzy enough that he can’t contradict her with the same authority as her husband or psychiatrist. When Telly insists that Ash say the name of his daughter he no longer believe he had, eventually prompting the return of his memories, it’s a wonderfully moving dramatic moment.
With Ash now on her side, the two parents set about tracking down their children after Telly concludes that they must be alive. The rest of the story follows their quest to find out who—or what—was responsible for trying to blank their memories. Along the way, strange and stranger things happen: the National Security Agency wants to question Telly; an inexplicable force sucks a hapless agent into the sky; a mysterious man, who seems to be following Telly, survives being run over and being shot.
All of these elements are handled with fine craftsmanship by director Joseph Ruben (THE STEPFATHER) who manages to generate not only suspense but also a sense of dread over confronting a mystery that (as one character says) is too big for any brain to handle. Ruben has you on the edge of your seat or biting your nails for much of the running time, and even when things slow down, the interplay between the actors is solid, charting the growing emotional attachment between Tell and Ash without turning it into a hokey Hollywood love story subplot.
The problem with inexplicable mysteries is that you either have to leave them inexplicable, or you have to explain them. In a half-hour TWILIGHT ZONE episode like “And When the Sky Was Opened,” (which also dealt with memories and physical evidence wiped clean by a mysterious power), it was acceptable to simply imply that the explanation had something to do with outer space (the victims were astronauts in that case), and leave it at that. Unfortunately, a full-length feature film isn’t going to throw up its hands and leave the audience to figure it out, and there’s no way to account for what’s happening without spelling out what the TWILIGHT ZONE only implied: aliens are behind the conspiracy.
The outrageous plot revelation is not the problem; in fact, it has the benefit of letting the script off the hook for a lot of details (because we cannot know the full extent of the aliens powers, we can’t really question what they can and cannot accomplish). No, the real problem is how to take an antagonist so huge and powerful and find a way for the characters to defeat it. The script works hard to offer explanations for the obvious questions along these lines. (For example, why don’t the aliens simply kill Ash and Telly? Because this is all an experiment to test their reactions.) However, it also sets up a situation in which victory comes too easily.
There is a dramatic device known as a Time Lock upon which writers rely to generate easy suspense: set up a situation in which the hero has to get something done by a particular time, or something terrible is going to happen. Screenwriter Gerald DiPeggo uses a Time Lock in THE FORGOTTEN, but it works to Telly’s advantage: the alien experiment needs to be completed by a particular time; otherwise the evil alien in charge will be “held accountable” for its failure. Consequently, all Moore has to do is not forget her son. Since the story has already clued us in that killing her would ruin the experiment as well, we know that she is not in any real physical danger, so the final confrontation turns out to be a disappointment after all the suspenseful buildup. Mother Love faces off with all-powerful alien force that (fortunately) has its hands mostly tied. Not surprisingly, Mother Love wins.
As disappointing as this confrontation is, the final scene is even more disappointing. With the experiment a failure, the aliens conveniently put everything back more or less the way it was before. (The film doesn’t specify whether aliens have wound back the clock to before the experiment started, or are simply using their memory tricks again.) This gives a nice, neat happy ending—well, not that neat: although the film seems to forget, Telly is still married to her husband, even though she has fallen in love with Ash.
It’s all meant to be very uplifting and warm and cozy, and it might even have worked if it had felt earned at the expense of some great sacrifice. Instead, it’s a gift the filmmakers give to their lead character (and to their audience), but it’s like a piece of costume jewelry that looks nice but isn’t really worth very much.
The irony here is unfortunate. Many classic TWLIGHT ZONE episodes created intriguing premises, then found it difficult to justify them without resorting to the clichéd “it’s only a dream” ending. THE FORGOTTEN, on the other hand, makes a valiant effort at providing a believable (in science-fiction terms, at least) explanation, then tags on an end that might as well be an awakening from a dream: the nightmare is over; everything’s back to normal, and there’s not even any need to deal with emotional fall-out because it’s all been forgotten (by everyone except Telly, apparently).
Films in which a paranoid character’s fears are validated can be fun, and THE FORGOTTEN is no exception. The film milks its premise effectively; unfortunately, the science-fiction element turns out to be just a dramatic device to justify the strange plot twists. When it comes to aliens manipulating human memories for experimental purposes, this film falls well short of DARK CITY. That 1997 film managed to be both sinister and smart, with a story that raised intriguing ideas about memory and identity. THE FORGOTTEN is plenty sinister, but its ending is not quite smart enough.