LUKE’S GRADE: D+
In Lisa Joy’s feature debut, “Reminiscence,” there are drylands for the rich and wetlands for the poor; there are broody detectives, gruff in appearance but slick in action; there are scar-ridden villains and linguistic drug lords; and connecting the classes, the addiction, and the crime is the fading dream of true love. The “Westworld” co-creator’s first film mashes noir and science fiction together into one moody motion picture, complete with bitter narration, swigging partners, and a wasteland setting. It’s no wonder the movie centers around the comforts of nostalgia.
Set along the Miami coast in a future torn apart by climate change, “Reminiscence” starts beyond the point of no return. Establishing shots of flooded boulevards and currents scaling skyscrapers inform viewers that whatever chances the species had to revert its ecological fate were snuffed. We learn there were wars, scraps for resources that ended with only a mere relocation of the status quo. Those left behind have no chance of bettering their situation, so whatever conquests they encounter are more individual and inevitably, more personal.
That certainly is the case for Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman), the wielder of a strange, inexplicable – meant literally, as Joy explains little – power: with drugs, machines, a microphone, and his partner Watts (Thandiwe Newton), Nick helps his clients relive their memories. The woman whose lover left her. The man who misses his dog. The mom who wants to see her baby as a baby again. They all have something worth remembering in a time where the good times stopped rolling.
Nick and Watts, who once served alongside each other in the military, make a decent living off these nostalgia highs. Many clients are satisfied in revisiting one lost moment in time. It feels peaceful and in the moment, it feels good. So, when femme fatale Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) walks in after hours asking for help remembering where her car keys are, there are red flags aplenty...that is, for everyone except Nick, whose instant infatuation is hardened by Mae’s sensual, Bacall style, her crimson gown, and forlorn jazz riffs. In layman’s terms, he’s hooked.
She seems to be too. But Mae disappears a few months later, leaving Nick in total disillusion with nothing but a few clues and a bank of memories to help track her down. Convinced something terrible has happened, Nick’s desperation takes him through the bellies of both his mind and his city. Gradually, after being pulled into criminal conspiracies, with his emotions dragging him closer to the case than Watts is ever comfortable with, he begins to doubt Mae and the love they may or may not have shared. Either way, he won’t abandon it entirely until he gets some answers.
Though “Reminiscence” takes place in the future, Nick’s over-sentimentality often feels like a thing of the past. Corrupting his compass and blinding his upsetting reality – something lover-in-the-wings Watts sees (and hates) in him more than anybody – it’s also going to be the main factor in audiences’ reception of him. It will be what decides whether Nick is a romantic savior, one of the few defenders of love in a loveless world, or a persistent stalker, refusing to let go of a break up he can’t make sense of. Written as clueless and impulsive, but also sweet and vulnerable, Nick can certainly be both. And while it’s easy to find him and his mission off-putting, it’s important to note that he’s hardly the first self-absorbed hero in love to hit the big screen.
In fact, there aren’t a lot of thematic firsts in “Reminiscence.” Ideas and atmospheres from “Blade Runner,” “Vertigo,” and “Chinatown” run rampant here. The few outliers there are, such as the police’s use of Nick’s memory machine in investigations and interrogations, aren’t well explored in the wake of the protagonist’s broken heart and the parade of familiar conflicts and social pressure points that follow it. But as a noir mystery, “Reminiscence” is solid. It features a satisfying series of dizzying complications and turnarounds as Nick navigates his world of monsters and parasites.
Where it stumbles, however, is in the motivations and dynamics of its characters, especially for those who aren’t swayed by Nick’s romantic obsessions. Joy’s script sometimes bloats Nick’s mission – though interesting work is done in time through the memory machine, explanatory voiceover and side quests featuring drug lords and broken-hearted manics slow the movie’s momentum – and silly pulp lines (“you’ve got balls, bocce-size,” for instance) don’t do the film any favors either.
One of the biggest crimes of “Reminiscence” is how unappealing its A-list cast can come off. Though Ferguson, often ravishing in Joy’s hazy lighting, maintains the mystery with her unreadable personality, Jackman, stuck somewhere between a military badass and blind lover boy, struggles to give Nick the grueling presence former private dicks have displayed on the screen.
Even with these faults, “Reminiscence” is refreshing in its scale. This is a long story with many branches, avenues, and detours. The detours can be frustrating, but the branches are often interesting to venture across, as is the experience of watching a major motion picture willing to reach as far down a rabbit hole as “Reminiscence” does.
And the reason the film goes as far as it does down this mission, down this obsession is, again, because of how worthless everything else is in this world. It’s depressing, in more ways than one. Not only does “Reminiscence” offer a general sci-fi dystopia, but grounded in realities that are finally becoming mainstream, the lengths its characters go to cling onto happiness, and how so much of it (pretty much all, in fact) is found in the past can only be interpreted as a warning. The syringes necessary to recreate memories visually amplify the desperation of these characters’ positions.
If people won’t pay attention to all of “Reminiscence” – which, so far, has been a sad truth, given that Joy’s ambitious visual style shows promise of a new big-budget filmmaker – hopefully they’ll pay attention to its forecast.
“Reminisence” is playing in theaters nationwide. It is also available to stream on HBOMax through Sept. 19.