Reminiscence comes to us from writer/director/producer Lisa Joy, here making her feature debut after a respectable run as an exec producer on the recent television remake of “Westworld”. This time, our particular sci-fi tale takes place in Miami of the not-too-distant future. Climate change has submerged the entire city about twenty or thirty feet below sea level, though there are some districts behind levees, where the water is only ankle deep. All the premium dry land got scooped up by the wealthy, leaving the poorest citizens to float until the ocean finally reclaims their homes.
Oh, and of course none of this stopped America from engaging in some war or another. From the sound of it, the mess on the southern border blew up into a full-blown war, complete with internment camps and a reinstatement of the draft.
Meanwhile, at some point in the previous decades, somebody invented Reminiscence. The basic gist is that a subject floats in a kind of tank while hooked up to a machine. Through a combination of drug-induced hypnosis and mechanical readings of neural pathways, the subject can relive any memory while the operators observe that same memory on holographic display.
This was originally invented as a method of interrogation. But as the present and future look increasingly bleak, more and more people are willing to pay through the nose to relive better days.
(Side note: If any of this sounds like the makings of a Christopher Nolan movie, you’re not far off. Lisa Joy is in fact related to Christopher Nolan by way of her husband, Christopher’s brother and frequent collaborator Jonathan Nolan. I might add that Jonathan is a creator of “Westworld” and a credited producer on this film.)
Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) is a war veteran who operates a Reminiscence tank for commercial use. We’ve also got Emily “Watts” Sanders (Thandiwe Newton), another war veteran working as Nick’s smart-aleck lab assistant and secretary. Their bread and butter is in helping the desperately nostalgic to relive their best memories, but the tank also comes in handy for helping to find lost people and objects. With this basic setup, and the general art deco atmosphere of the film (seriously, this whole movie could be a visual proof of concept for a “Bioshock” film adaptation), it becomes immediately clear that we’re looking at a noir thriller.
But of course we can’t get a noir thriller started without our femme fatale. Enter Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), a nightclub singer who drops into Nick’s place of business to help find her missing keys. However, the woman proves to be an expert at seduction, quickly and easily luring Nick into a steamy conflict of professional interest. Basically, you know that quick affair Jackman and Ferguson had during The Greatest Showman? Imagine that, but stretched out into an entire movie, and neither character is married this time.
Next up, we can’t have a decent noir thriller without a rich and powerful crime boss pulling all the strings and hiding more than he’s telling. Here we have Walter Sylvan (Brett Cullen), alongside his wife and son (Tamera and Sebastian, respectively played by Marina de Tavira and Mojean Aria). Walter is the rich asshole who scooped up all the dry land in Miami while the getting was still cheap. In the time since, he’s used everything from arson to straight-up murder to drive out the lower-paying tenants in favor of wealthier clientele. Walter’s wealth and connections have gotten him out of any convictions, but he’s mortally sick. So it’s only a matter of time until someone that wealthy and that powerful kicks the bucket and all hell breaks loose.
Last but not least, any good noir thriller needs a heavy. Here we have Cliff Curtis in the role of Cyrus Boothe. Spoilers forbid going into too much detail, but suffice to say that he’s a crooked cop.
With all the genre pieces in place, Nick and Mae enter into a whirlwind months-long love affair until she suddenly goes missing. Thus Nick scours every second of his memory, looking for any clue as to what happened to her. He finally catches a break, it turns out she was embroiled in a massive conspiracy, and we’re off to the races.
As a noir thriller with a sci-fi twist, the movie is fine. The central mystery is easy to follow, the actors all do a fine job of playing the established genre archetypes, and the fight scenes are genuinely fun. Yes, it does strain credibility that one character is somehow capable of clearing out an entire bar of armed thugs, but it’s awesome to watch and well below the standard of suspending disbelief established by the basic premise.
Likewise, the entire plot revolves around Nick’s deep-rooted obsession with a woman he only knew for a few months. Was he absolutely sure that she was the one he was going to spend the rest of his life with? Did it really haunt him so much that she picked up and left after so short a time? It’s improbable, sure, but Jackman and Ferguson totally sell it. Their chemistry is positively smoldering, more than powerful enough to keep the plot moving.
Strictly in terms of plot, there’s really nothing wrong with this movie. All the noir tropes and archetypes we know and love are here, but we’ve got enough sci-fi trappings to keep things fresh. Alas, in terms of themes, this movie is all over the place.
Let’s start with the recurring theme of addiction. On one level, there’s a crucial plot device called “baca”, a lucrative, illegal, and highly addictive street drug. But on another level, we learn that memories themselves can be addictive in this universe. Turns out that if someone Reminisces the same memory too many times — or if anything else goes wrong with the procedure — the memory can be “burned” into the subject’s mind, such that they relive the memory on a constant loop for the rest of their miserable life.
So we’ve got two prominent avenues for exploring the theme of addiction, and nothing is done to try and dovetail the two. Such a waste.
Additionally, while the film has a lot to say about how happy and easy and gratifying it would be to simply stay in the tank and relive former glories, it falls well short of completing that sentence. Barely a word is spoken about how we need to keep living in the present to build a better future. There’s a lot about how the future is built upon the foundations of the past, and that’s fair, but the ending seems to imply that some of us might be better off living in the past forever. And that message simply doesn’t connect.
A lot of that has to do with the nature of Jackman’s character. His obsession with the past and refusal to move on might make sense if he had war-related PTSD without any other treatment, but the film barely goes into any detail about Nick’s time in the trenches or how it affects him to this day. I could also see this if Nick was suffering some terminal illness and he wanted to spend his last remaining days in the past, because that’s where he’s going to end up in short order anyway. But no, he’s apparently alive and well and there’s basically nothing to address his own mortality.
Yes, the whole world is apparently doomed and there seems little point in trying to make it better, but the ending seems to undercut that message as well. There’s a variation on Orson Welles’ wisdom that even the happiest stories have sad endings if you let them go on long enough. Fine advice for storytelling, but the film seems to imply that it has some kind of practical application anywhere else, and I’m just not seeing it.
Reminiscence is one of those frustrating movies that had absolutely everything it needed except a point. The cast is great, it looks amazing, the premise is wonderful, and it works beautifully as a modern noir caper. But as a work of intellectual science fiction, it’s muddled and contradictory to the point of incoherent. And for a film that put so much stock in its ideas, dedicating so much screen time to po-faced flowery voice-over monologues about philosophizing (it is a noir, after all), I’m sorry, but that has to be a dealbreaker.
I’m glad I saw this on HBO Max, because that really is the best method of getting your time and money’s worth out of this picture. If you’ve already got a subscription, then by all means, give the film a shot and see if you get more out of this than I did.