Reminiscence is the feature film debut of writer/director Lisa Joy, producer and co-creator of HBO’s Westworld series. The first season of Westworld knocked me out, but the appeal evaporated quickly afterwards. Reminiscence actually predates Joy’s work on that series — her spec script for the film appears on the “Black List” of the most notable unproduced screenplays of 2013. Like Westworld, Reminiscence is a moody sci-fi drama that deals in some very heavy themes, in this case addiction and loss. But where Westworld caught attention by expanding outward from other films about artificial intelligence, sometimes taking the subgenre to shocking and unsettling places, Reminiscence is missing much of that ambition. It’s a perfectly fine film, but when it’s stood up against other works that have a similar setting, tone, or subject matter, it ends up looking a bit thin by comparison.
“Nostalgia Never Goes Out of Style”
Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) lives in a half-flooded future Miami where he operates a “reminiscence” device that lets customers revisit their old memories. Like the dream machines in Inception, it’s repurposed military technology, and Nick and his friend and sole employee Watts (Thandiwe Newton, Westworld) are occasionally hired by the police to assist with criminal investigations. In this sci-fi noir, Nick is our unconventional hard-boiled detective, a haunted veteran who now uses the interrogation skills he acquired during the war towards the more peaceful end of helping people find lost items or relive lost loves. When the mysterious lounge singer Mae (Rebecca Ferguson, Mission: Impossible – Fallout) walks in and out of his life, Nick probes obsessively into his own recollections of their relationship in the hope of solving the mystery of her disappearance.
Reminiscence is a noir through and through, from its pulpy narration and dialogue to its themes of disenchantment and systemic cruelty. It’s a bleak reality full of compromised people, and none of them want to have to look at the world for what it is. Nick’s clients find solace in fond memories, Watts looks for hers at the bottom of a bottle, while more and more of the public is getting hooked on a new, highly addictive designer drug. Nick’s escape is love — he falls hard for Mae, and the realization that she may not have been the person he thought she was makes him go a little bit mad. Each step in his investigation only seems to raise more questions and wreak havoc on his emotions — why did she leave? Did she ever love him back? Was she using him? If so, for what?
All of this sounds like a recipe for a compelling character drama, but somehow none of the performances make a significant impression. Hugh Jackman is capable as a “strong silent type” reduced to tears, but there’s not a lot of specificity to Nick Bannister as a character. Jackman also provides a dry narration to the film, which calls to mind Harrison Ford’s flat voiceover performance in the theatrical cut of Blade Runner. (Like most films with narration, Reminiscence would be better off with less of it.) Rebecca Ferguson brings the right mystique to her character when she’s playing foil to Jackman, but she makes for a very dull lounge singer. Thandiwe Newton makes the most of her supporting role as a benign functional alcoholic who has seemingly given up on having her own life apart from Nick’s. The most memorable turn is Daniel Wu (Into the Badlands) whose performance as drug lord Saint Joe is a few hairs broader than the rest of the cast and feels more in line with what the movie needs.
Film Noir en Blanc
Reminiscence scores big points for its plausible depiction of an America that’s already ankle-deep in the cataclysmic effects of climate change. The story takes place in Miami and New Orleans, coastal cities whose struggles against rising tides and intense storms have already begun and will only get more dramatic over the next few decades. Nick and Watts work in “the spill-over,” the neighborhood just inside Miami’s sea wall that’s perpetually flooded but still navigable on foot. The wealthy live farther inland, protected by higher walls, dams, and canals that keep them dry while directing water back into working-class neighborhoods. This story also takes place in the aftermath of a war that reached the US border — the details of the war itself aren’t provided, only that the US government rounded up its own citizens en masse (presumably, the poor) and forced them into hazardous areas. Saint Joe is a survivor of a flood that drowned an internment camp in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Nick and Watts aren’t “bad guys,” but as draftees on US Border Patrol, they definitely worked for them.
Because Miami is now too hot to enjoy during the day, the city has gone nocturnal, turning one of the key elements of film noir on its head — the seedy underworld now comes to life during the day, while “respectable” people are asleep. This creates a cognitive dissonance between the film’s warm amber color palette and the sense of danger that viewers naturally associate with darkness. Director Lisa Joy, director of photography Paul Cameron, and production designer Howard Cummings (both of whom she brought over from her Westworld team) have clearly made a concerted effort to make interesting use of this quirk of worldbuilding. Bars and offices in the world of Reminiscence are lined with frosted or stained glass, with beams of direct sunlight coming in only through high transom windows. But in exterior scenes, particularly out on the Miami docks, the daylight is a much more daunting challenge, one that the film doesn’t totally overcome.
The world of Reminiscence has some interesting twists derived from a realistic projection of our future, but it’s missing its own sense of style. Reminiscence is far from the first futuristic science fiction to look backwards for costume inspiration — there’s a timeless quality to a red evening gown or a black tie on a white collared shirt that you can get away with applying to any near-future, especially one that’s trying to evoke midcentury cinema. (Rian Johnson hung a lampshade on this trope in Looper.) The trouble is that Reminiscence doesn’t add anything overtop of this aesthetic. Apart from the memory-probing equipment, there’s no new technology or fashion in the future, and these are the things that keep science fiction worlds captivating in their slower, quieter moments. Reminiscence isn’t any more plodding or ruminative than Blade Runner, but the latter film holds my attention better because the world is so visually rich. Joy’s film ends up feeling a little bit shy, a little afraid of looking silly, as if someone drained all of the cyberpunk out of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days.
Reminiscence’s treatment of memory is also not very imaginative. Like Inception, Reminiscence applies strict, objective rules to a part of the human psyche that is highly subjective and malleable. The technology in the film seems to allow users to make a hard copy of a memory and then replay it from that recording, and perhaps because of this, every time we see a particular memory it is exactly the same. Whether these memories could be changed based upon the context in which they’re accessed or how they might be shaped or reinterpreted based on new experiences is not explored, a puzzling omission considering that the story forces Nick to reconsider his perception of Mae. This mechanical approach to its subject matter doesn’t spoil Reminiscence any more than it does Inception, but in both cases it means leaving on the table some interesting ideas that are intrinsically tied to their core concepts.
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Addicted to Love
Reminiscence is heavily invested in the psychology of addiction, exploring it from a different angle through each central character. When the film begins, Nick seems mostly content with the life he’s made for himself since the war. But contentment is not happiness, and once he’s had a taste of it via his romance with Mae, its absence is palpable. After Mae disappears, Nick dives into his memories with her over and over again, purportedly looking for clues while dosing himself with the joy of a new love. As long as he keeps returning to the reminiscence, he’s never going to move on. We see the long-term consequences of reminiscence abuse through minor characters in the film who are psychologically or even physically unable to escape a particular moment in their lives.
While Nick doesn’t truly acknowledge the nature of his addiction, those around him are much more self-aware. Watts considers her habitual drinking to be a much more honest form of escape than memory — at least she can admit that she has a vice, and that it has no purpose beyond numbing the pain of her difficult life. The new hot drug in America is baca, a staggeringly addictive substance that induces apathy. We don’t see people get high on baca so much as we see people change under its influence, becoming ruthlessly single-minded in the pursuit of more. One baca-addicted character in the film describes the drug as taking away her fear, no doubt a very appealing effect in an environment so devoid of hope. The ocean-sized challenges that face the characters in the film — the ones we’re facing now — are so intimidating that the ability to stop caring is undeniably attractive.
The ending of Reminiscence attempts to tie Nick’s personal quest back to the larger social and economic struggle that’s in the background for most of the film, but this conceptual snap zoom is a bit too sudden, a bit too detached from the character’s journey to be meaningful. The focus quickly returns to the small, personal story, whose ending is pat, perhaps to a fault. There’s a moment during one of Reminiscence’s final scenes that feels like the place at which the film should cut to black. This additional minute or so ties the story up a bit more neatly where ambiguity might have been more satisfying.
If it sounds like I’m ragging on Reminiscence a bit, I truly don’t mean to. I like the film a lot more than I dislike it. Like its protagonist, I have the ability to go back and revisit scenes, to consider and reconsider the film and to puzzle out my feelings. I’ve only grown more fond of the things I initially liked the most about the film the more I’ve considered them, such as its honesty about the direction our world is headed and how we might cope with it. Likewise, the elements that felt weakest on my first viewing now stand out to me more, as does the unshakable feeling that I’ve seen them each done better somewhere else. Reminiscence is engaging, it’s well-put together, and I think it’s genuinely worth seeing, especially since it’s available to stream already on HBO Max. But, as much as I’ve come to appreciate it, the truth is that Reminiscence lacks staying power and is, sadly, doomed to be forgotten.