Reminiscence opens on a striking image of a half-submerged Miami, with buildings rising out of the deepest part of the water like tombstones in a flooded graveyard, while the less inundated areas are filled with people splashing through knee-high water on foot or cruising blithely down streets in boats like they’re vacationing in Venice.
It’s a haunting visual metaphor for the movie’s thematic preoccupation with memory, and how human beings desperately cling to the memories that comfort them even as time works its slow, steady entropy on our lives and places. Both those recollections and those buildings will eventually vanish one day, leaving behind nothing but the waves.
Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) plies his trade in those memories. In this not-too-distant future, where climate change and a war of indeterminate origin have wrecked a large portion of the planet for most of us, a technology has been developed in which people’s memories can be accessed from their brains and recorded. Those memories can be used for things like criminal investigations, but most clients come to Bannister’s lab — housed in an abandoned bank — to relive precious moments from their lives.
Into Bannister’s place one day comes Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), a beautiful, enigmatic lounge singer whose picture would no doubt be in any dictionary next to the words “femme fatale.” She’s ostensibly there to retrace her memories of the past day and find out where she left her house keys, but it isn’t too long before Bannister is intoxicated by her and the two begin a torrid affair — which abruptly ends with Mae’s disappearance.
Despite the disapproval of his faithful sole employee Emily “Watts” Sanders (Thandiwe Newton) — who is perhaps a little in love herself with her boss — Nick begins a dangerous journey to find Mae, probing both his own memories of their time together and a shadowy network of drug dealers, corrupt cops, and amoral oligarchs.
Reminiscence is the feature directorial debut of Lisa Joy, co-creator and executive producer of HBO’s Westworld (with her husband, Jonathan Nolan) and the upcoming video game adaptation Fallout. Like Westworld, not to mention a number of the films directed by her brother-in-law Christopher Nolan, Reminiscence combines several genres — in this case, dystopian science fiction with film noir — but never quite successfully meshes the two.
Joy certainly has a great eye for visuals: she and director of photography Paul Cameron (also from Westworld), along with production designer Howard Cummings, have crafted an alternately beautiful, eerie, and harrowing vision of a very plausible near future in which the coastline is rapidly disappearing and pushing one’s way through water is an everyday aspect of life (the sinking cityscapes are reminiscent — no pun intended — of those in Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, but are explored in more detail here).
Wealthy real estate barons (who live in a walled-off enclave, of course) seem to be mostly in charge, with the rest of the population getting by on a subsistence level, and the gradual accumulation of details about life — like the fact that no one goes out during the day because it’s too damn hot — paint a picture of a society that is clearly going through a slow-motion collapse.
All that interesting information, however, is not used particularly well by Joy’s original screenplay, which focuses primarily on the noirish quest by Jackman’s Bannister to find his lost love. The actor’s gravelly voice-over, which kicks off the film with a heap of aphorisms and exposition and reappears intermittently throughout, hints that Joy is still struggling with the clunky writing that has done a lot of damage to Westworld (and, strangely, seems to be a thing that the Nolan boys wrestle with as well).
So even though the film is always visually interesting, it moves rather slowly and at times comes across as inert, with the familiar beats of the story lacking any kind of real momentum. The shifts between “reality” and the characters’ accessed memories can be jarring and confusing as well, and the plot — which carries echoes of noir touchstones like Chinatown and Out of the Past — seems ultimately inconsequential, with a number of minor characters gaining importance so late in the game that the viewer doesn’t get a chance to connect or empathize with them (or even be clear on who they are).
The cast is uniformly fine, with Jackman doing his usual effective mix of vulnerability, determination, and raw anger, letting his natural charisma fill in the rest. Even though Ferguson is suitably sultry as the mysterious Mae, one never really feels the spark that’s supposed to crackle between them. Perhaps the best performance comes from the always excellent Newton, who brings a matter-of-fact practicality to the role of Watts while also imbuing her with genuine emotional depth.
With such a good cast (which also includes a nice villainous turn from Cliff Curtis), great visuals, and the intriguing possibilities of the world she’s built, it’s a shame that Joy’s script never really adds up to much more than what Bannister calls in his voiceover “a series of moments.” Credit to Joy as well for ending the movie on a low-key note instead of with the usual fire and explosions, but for a movie about memory and its powerful hold on us, Reminiscence never finds a way to lodge itself in one’s mind.
Reminiscence opens in theaters and premieres on HBO Max this Friday (August 20).