by Aaron West
2004. Written by Charlie Kaufman. Directed by Michel Gondry
It seems like yesterday when I first read the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind script. Charlie Kaufman was the “it” screenwriter, having just been won over the indie world for Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. As impressive as that script had been, I was assured by a cinephile friend that Sunshine was even better. I remember starting the script late at night, planning on finishing the following day. I was enraptured. Several hours later, the script was finished, and my mind was blown. I immediately considered it to be one of the finest scripts I’d ever read. I also considered it to be so high concept that it would be nearly unfilmable.
Fortunately Gondry and his stellar cast were up to the task at capturing the essence of such brilliant writing. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet embodied both the magnetic romanticism and also the tortuous misery they created for each other. We can understand why they loved and why they hated each other, why they would want to literally erase the memory of one another, and why they may fight to keep those precious memories intact.
In this countdown, we have talked about a wide range of science fiction films, with some that use it as a means of explaining a world philosophy, and other, lighter-fare that perhaps explores a foreign world or tries to withstand the attacks of a gigantic, scientifically mutated monster. Sunshine is unquestionably science fiction, but is also a bit of an outlier when compared with many of the films on this list. It more closely resembles a romantic drama, yet fits with the genre due to the clever concept. The science is a technology that may on the surface sound reasonable today – we can all wrap our brains around the idea of deleting something with a computer.
That is where the realism ends. The human mind is still an enigma, and the very idea of deleting someone’s memories is completely divorced from reality. It is not meant to be taken as serious science, or as a way to escape into another dimension. It is instead a vehicle to explore the complexities and trivialities of human relationships and consciousness. Why do we make ourselves suffer when involved in a miserable relationship? Why do we cling to the hope that it can ever be repaired? It is completely understandable that we would want take the easy way out, deleting the entire awareness of the relationship rather than addressing the shortcomings that led to the parting. A contentious, painful breakup will linger for a long while, perhaps for a person’s entire life. Forgetting is an attractive alternative, but doing so artificially takes away from our humanity.
As much as I have loved this film for years, it has been interesting rediscovering it having a number of subsequent Kaufman and Gondry films to compare with. Gondry’s career has been a mixed bag, with some worthwhile projects, a few of which have highlighted the visual style that he used to such great effect in Eternal Sunshine. A couple of his films seem a little too similar, which is understandable since the Kaufman vehicle is still his career highpoint, which is unlikely to ever be surpassed.
Kaufman, on the other hand, has kept working at a relatively high level even at a reduced output. He has transitioned to a director, and achieved continued critical success, if not quite reached the mainstream (which is probably fine with him). With Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa, he has fleshed out the themes that he first developed in Sunshine. At times, Sunshine seems to be comparably optimistic. Despite the trials and tribulations in human relationships, there is something valuable to cling onto, something memorable. Synecdoche is far from optimistic, basically pursuing the idea that love and relationships are social construct with little impactful meaning. The pessimism of his later work colors Sunshine, trimming it of the romanticism. It is not exactly comforting to know that people will cling to a partner that brings out the worst in them.
To go further, I have to head into spoiler territory. However, rather than spoil the film, I am going to spoil the script. Please skip if you would someday like to read the originally written ending.
What moved me so much all those years ago was the final scene. The film ends with Joel and Clementine in their old age, and we learn that they have continued to erase memories of each other multiple times. The erasing of each other has been the focal point of their lives, and their losing it essentially strips their lives of meaning. On the one hand, the ending is depressing, but it is also a trifle romantic. Is it the elusive true love that keeps bringing them back together? Are there cosmic forces at work that science cannot dictate?
These complications make the film and script so rich. It can be read as beautiful or terrible, depending on your perspective. Even as a tragic story of repeated fate and heartbreak, it has another type of beauty. The film is undoubtedly inventive and creative, and it sheds insight into humanity’s failings. Even in a “science fiction” film, there is a truth that we’re all the product of our emotions. However difficult to realize, there is something beautiful about how art captures humanity.