The Best Sci-Fi Romance of the Century Predicted Our Bleak Relationship With Technology

Few films have balanced mind-bending and heartbreaking quite like Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

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“It would be different, if we could just give it another go around,” Joel (Jim Carrey) tells Clementine (Kate Winslet). Except he’s not speaking to Clementine at all, but a memory of her; specifically, a memory of when he first asked her out. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind introduces a groundbreaking technology: the ability to delete someone from your life, wiping their entire existence from your mind. After their relationship ended, Clementine deletes Joel from her life. When Joel finds out, he retaliates by doing the same. But when the process begins, he gets cold feet and tries to fight the inevitable and keep his memories of her alive.

First released 20 years ago, Eternal Sunshine is a dreamlike, mind-bending movie that is a masterful exploration of love, memory, and loss. The film, directed by Michel Gondry and written by Charlie Kaufman, has received countless accolades, including ecstatic reviews and a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Kate Winslet. Two decades after the film's release, what’s most striking is the way Eternal Sunshine eerily predicts our inextricable relationship with technology and romance in the social media age — which is all the more impressive since it predates most social media and the first iPhone.

Watched today, the film has a striking prescience. There’s a chilling quality to the replaying of memories that Joel experiences while deleting Clementine. As he tries to cling to specifics, details from his memories literally fade away. It’s not unlike the way we process memories in the digital age: scrolling through your phone’s camera roll to recall treasured private moments, poring through your exes' social media accounts to see if you’re still a fixture, reading through old text messages to try and figure out who was responsible for the breakup.

All our technology allows practically unlimited access to memories – or perhaps more accurately, our skewed perception of those memories. Particularly on social media, those memories tend to reflect the highlights, leaving the lows behind for yourself to deal with alone. As Joel goes further back into his memories of Clementine, the more nostalgic he gets, effectively blocking out all the misery and anger that came at the end of their relationship. There’s an alarmingly similar effect caused by social media: when looking through designed feeds of your love, you hone in on the positive, effectively eliminating the negative, and start longing for a version of a relationship that never really existed.

The closest thing Eternal Sunshine has to a villain is Patrick (Elijah Wood), a lab assistant who participates in the erasure of both Clementine and Joel’s memories. Because he’s there, he has an entire blueprint – or to speak in the film’s terms, a brain map – of Clementine, and he weaponizes that to date her. He uses Joel’s memories that he could only obtain via the technological process, even using specific gifts he’s given to Clementine, to woo her.

In this way, Eternal Sunshine predicts a hugely concerning aspect of romance and technology via Patrick; nowadays, it's easy to discover someone’s interests and hobbies long before we meet them. That means, just like Patrick, you can tailor your personality to attract a partner instead of being your authentic self. While it may work initially, there’s an extreme hollowness to it in practice. It’s impossible to build a healthy relationship built on lies, which is why Clementine and Patrick’s relationship ultimately breaks down.

Twenty years later, Eternal Sunshine’s depiction of the intersection between romance and technology is surprisingly prescient.

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It’s the film’s treatment of obsession that feels timeliest of all. While Eternal Sunshine exists in a world before social media and pervasive technology, it captures a feeling that’s only been amplified through advances that have come in the last 20 years. As Joel trawls through his memories, there’s a crushing desperation as he tries to keep the fading memories alive.

Nowadays, you don’t need a group of scientists showing up at your house to delete your memories. All you have to do is tap your screen a few times, and you can erase every photo, every message, a person ever sent you. You can block their number and all their social media profiles so they can’t contact you. In a few minutes, you can erase someone without a thought. Through Carrey’s aching performance, we’re forced to confront what deleting someone from your life actually feels like, and the growing regret and resentment that comes from doing something so permanent.

Can love and technology co-exist? Eternal Sunshine doesn’t seem so sure. This is a film that argues passionately for the importance of memory – exploring how much it hurts to lose it, we uncover how essential they are to human existence. Beneath all the heartbreak, there’s a surprising optimism to be found at the end of the film. Joel and Clementine find each other again and discover all the awful things they say about one another during their deletion process. Despite that, they opt to try again, just as Joel hoped for when trying to keep his memories intact.

It’s touching, but there’s a certain dread here, that they are doomed to fail. This is a film deeply concerned with our relationship with technology, but it makes a clear case against deleting the things that hurt you. Processing that pain, and not erasing it, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind suggests, is the way we grow. Maybe Joel and Clementine will make it this time.

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