Eternal Sunshine’s warnings about modern romance

Professor Bruce Isaacs, chair of film studies at the University of Sydney, says that its hybrid of genres was part of its unique appeal on its release. “It was hard to say whether we were talking about science fiction or whether we were talking about realism and drama; it was [also] an arthouse romcom. It’s not like it fetishes the tech, it’s not a movie about that at all. The thing you go away with from Eternal Sunshine is that you really believe in this incredibly painful love story.”

“That idea of wanting to escape the harshness of life, of wanting to find some peace or even to find a utopian world is such a big part of sci-fi,” he continues, “and what I love about the film, it was done on such a personal level. [The focus was not on] a global or technological change – it was just a bunch of people living their lives, trying to navigate their way through romantic connections.”

More like this:
–      Is the mediocre romcom making a grand return?
–      The film that predicted Hollywood’s AI crisis
–      How The Matrix predicted life in the 2020s

But it also undoubtedly played into fears of how our increasing deference to technology might be abused, and manipulated by humans for their own nefarious gains. In one blatant conflict of interest, we learn that Patrick uses the knowledge he gleans from accessing Joel’s memories with Clem to seduce her, stealing Joel’s loving words and re-gifting his gifts to her, in a kind of romantic identity theft similar to catfishing – a term which didn’t come into common usage online until 2010. We also learn that Mary has had the procedure following an affair with Dr Howard – and a subsequent abortion – that she obviously has no recollection of.

“That [sub-plot] was one of the things that really struck me when I [first] saw the film,” says Isaacs, who explains that “Mary discovering ‘I have been a subject of this and I didn’t even know because I have no memory of it'” immediately made him think of Blade Runner, where Rachael first finds out she’s a replicant, and Deckard says to her CEO boss Tyrell: “but how can it not know what it is?”

“Technology has always been able to be hacked, and people have been doing it for years,” says Danino. “But what stops people from doing it is their moral compass, their ethical values.” Perhaps the moral panic shouldn’t be over the technology that might be created, but how humans use it, she suggests: “I think sometimes we put a bad rap on technology but technology is just another vehicle. The bad rap is on humans.”

The ‘techno-romance’ sub-genre it set off

The movie came at a time when social media was in its infancy – The Facebook, as it was then known, was unleashed by Mark Zuckerberg and friends at Harvard University just two months prior to the film’s release – and when our digital footprints were much lighter. Fears around how computer technology might affect our relationships were only just beginning to be discussed – the notion that this kind of “malware” might come to manipulate us in the not too-distant future proved fertile ground for Eternal Sunshine, and became somewhat of an obsession for pop culture afterwards.

Seven years later, Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones launched their dystopian anthology TV series Black Mirror, in which the episodes were all hooked on the common theme: “What if technology… but bad”. Several episodes seemed to take the lead from Eternal Sunshine more directly – in 2019, Cineccentric even dubbed the film “a pre-Black Mirror cautionary tale (though admittedly more tender than sadistic)”. The Black Mirror first season episode Entire History of You – written by Succession‘s Jesse Armstrong – was focused around humans having a microchip put in their heads, allowing them to record and play back their lived experiences, an innovation which had a devastating effect on the main characters, married couple Liam (Toby Kebbell) and Ffion (Jodie Whittaker).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *