Posted December 19, 2010 by Marcia Degia - Publisher in Films
 
 

Unknown


****WARNING! May contain
spoilers****

With the explosion in
increasingly gimmicky 3D, it’s good to see a film that relies on a derivative
story and unbelievably obvious plot twists to instil a mild sense of
befuddlement in its audience.

On the eve of a historic
biotechnology conference, Dr Martin Harris (Liam Neeson playing the most
implausible scientist since the Governator in Junior) and his lovely younger wife Liz (bland Thunderbird puppet January Jones) fly into Berlin; he’s giving a
speech and she’s planning to hit the art galleries. But upon arrival at the
hotel Martin discovers he’s left his briefcase on the luggage trolley back at
the airport. Doh! So, leaving Liz
to check into the hotel, he jumps into a cab and hotfoots it back to the
airport. Unfortunately, fate leaps in front of the cab in the form of a runaway
fridge, forcing the taxi to crash into the river in the process. Waking from a
coma four days later, Martin finds his wife doesn’t recognise him, an imposter
(Aidan Quinn) has taken his place and strangers keep trying to kill him. Aided
only by the illegal immigrant cab driver/waitress who saved him from a watery
grave (Diane Kruger), can Martin take back his life and foil the bad guys?

Don’t be alarmed if you
experience an overwhelming sensation of déjà vu while watching Unknown. Relax. Take a deep breath. You don’t have amnesia.
You have seen this film before. It probably starred Matt Damon (The Bourne
Identity
), it was set on Mars (Total
Recall
), might have involved tattoos
(Memento) and they all lived
happily ever after (50 First Dates).
You probably quite enjoyed it. And if you do have amnesia and don’t remember
any of these films, you’ll probably find Unknown a fresh, original take on the paranoid conspiracy
thriller. If you’ve never seen any of these films.

There’s a lot to enjoy about
Unknown but the originality of
the story isn’t one of them. The amnesiac’s bumbling search for identity has
been a clichéd staple of movies ever since Hitchcock made Spellbound and each film follows more or less the same formula.
The main character has usually suffered some form of trauma (Neeson bumps his
head, Matt Damon’s Bourne took a couple of slugs in the back, Schwarzenegger is
forced to screw Sharon Stone) causing conveniently cinematic amnesia. The kind
people only get in movies. They forget who they are but they retain the ability
to speak and think, their motor and kung fu skills and, more importantly, their
bowel control. Face it, Jason Bourne wouldn’t have been half as attractive a
protagonist if he’d spent The Bourne Identity as a gibbering imbecile lying in his own faeces. The
protagonist will conveniently find an attractive assistant (Neeson has Kruger, Memento’s Guy Pearce gets Joe Pantoliano) and together they’ll
discover some predictable hard truths. More often than not the hero turns out
to have been a remorseless super-assassin and stricken by conscience, he’ll try
to thwart the bad guys’ plans which usually entail killing all the innocent
mutants on Mars (Total Recall) or
blowing up Niagra Falls (The Long Kiss Goodnight). Sometimes however ignorance is bliss. Imagine
being Drew Barrymore in 50 First Dates and waking up every morning to find you’re married to Adam Sandler?

As an audience, amnesia
fascinates us. Identity is dependent on memory; when characters lose their
memory they lose themselves. They’re free to recreate themselves, to start
over. But there’s always that niggling curiosity dragging them back and driving
the film. Knowledge becomes both an obsession and a burden; enlightenment
always comes at a heavy price. Unknown flirts with some of these ideas and there are some genuinely unsettling
moments in the first 40 minutes or so where Neeson’s vulnerable, anxious Martin
questions his own sanity, his sense of reality. Then the film-makers remember
where their strengths lie and shoehorn in as many opportunities as possible for
Neeson to punch people in the face.

Mechanically efficient, Unknown supplies the requisite action movie thrills but
never really engages and at close to two hours is at least 20 minutes too long.
The cast are uniformly good (well, ok at any rate), with the possible exception
of January Jones who’s so wooden she creaks, but you can’t shake the feeling
that some of them (cough…Frank Langella) are phoning in their performances.
Much like the film, they’re just going through the motions. Kruger is a feisty
and vulnerable as the heroine while Neeson handles the thick-ear action moments
admirably and does look genuinely confused for much of the film, though whether
he’s acting or is trying to understand the script we’re never sure. Only Bruno
Ganz sparkles however as a sympathetic, if threadbare, former Stasi member who
comes to Neeson’s aid and helpfully explains most of the plot. A wintry Berlin
makes for an authentically alien, hostile environment and while the plot is
implausible, Unknown never
actually comes right out and insults your intelligence. Until the over-the-top
climax where Neeson slugs it out in an exploding hotel.

Just once though wouldn’t it
be nice to see a film where the amnesiac protagonist regains his memory,
realises he wasn’t a particularly nice guy (the Bourne movies, Total Recall) and instead of getting an attack of conscience and
thwarting the bad guys, saving the innocent and adopting a dog, he actually
went back to a life of all round evil-doing? Until his taxi hits a fridge,
Neeson actually appears to have a pretty sweet life, jet-setting around the
world committing terrorist acts for fun and profit. Would he really give that
up for a taxi driver even if she does look like Diane Kruger?

Trotting out every hoary old
amnesia cliché you can think of, Unknown is by the numbers film-making. It’s well enough made, mildly
entertaining and has one or two genuinely unsettling moments but ultimately
it’s…forgettable.


Marcia Degia - Publisher

 
Marcia Degia has worked in the media industry for more than 10 years. She was previously Acting Managing Editor of Homes and Gardens magazine, Publishing Editor at Macmillan Publishers and Editor of Pride Magazine. Marcia, who has a Masters degree in Screenwriting, has also been involved in many broadcast projects. Among other things, she was the devisor of the documentary series Secret Suburbia for Living TV.