Ironically, a cautionary tale about getting mired in the past, in nostalgia, is itself hamstrung by too much attachment to what has come before. With stock style, Reminiscence spins out overplayed noir tropes and underbaked retreads of familiar science-fiction ideas to end up with a finished product that is so full of manufactured sleek that it feels like an invented movie from the alt-universe of another movie, probably one satirizing Hollywood.
Or perhaps Reminiscence is a half-remembered dream of a movie from the mind of one of Nick Bannister’s (Hugh Jackman: Bad Education, Missing Link) clients. In an unspecified near future — decades from now, not centuries — he runs a small shop that deals in memories. Your own memories. Maybe you lost your keys and need to find them. Maybe the district attorney has a warrant to search your recollections for evidence of a crime. Or maybe you’re just in a lot of pain in a rough, tough world and would like to retreat to a more pleasant past for a while. Nick’s got you covered.
But Nick doesn’t just plop you into the machine: there’s a water tank for you to float in, and a brainwave-reading headset to wear, and a lifesize 3D VR stage for your memories to play out on. (More irony: for all the many SF films of recent vintage that are evoked here, the one I was reminded most of is Minority Report, which deals with the future, not the past. But both flicks are about picking over the stuff happening in your head, and in some cases unpacking mysteries with what you find there.) No, conjuring up something coherent from the mess in your mind requires a delicate interrogator’s skill, which Nick provides, a hypnotizing tour guide for memory-tourists.
And so Jackman’s soothing yet authoritative voice doubles as our world-weary noir narrator, leading not only his clients through their memories but us through his. Cuz there was this broad, see, called Mae (Rebecca Ferguson: Doctor Sleep, Men in Black: International), who tumbled into his life one night — she was the one with the lost keys — and he fell in love with her, and then she disappeared without a word, and now he’s obsessed with finding her…
The inherent misogyny of the femme fatale is mostly avoided by writer-director Lisa Joy, the Westworld showrunner making her feature debut. And Joy gives at least one dusty cliché a nominally feminist spin by casting Nick’s gruff, alcoholic coworker and sidekick — they fought in The War together — as a woman, Watts (Thandiwe Newton: Solo: A Star Wars Story, Gringo). But Reminiscence is very much a traditionally grim and cynical potboiler about a man haunted by an enigmatic dame with a past. The memory technology allows for a bit of shuffling around of the narrative: is this happening now? or is someone gonna wake up outta Nick’s tank from a memory of this? And yet it makes absolutely zero difference to any of it. Nothing here is as imaginative or as mindbending as it wants to be.
The most interesting aspect of the film is the setting: a Miami half drowned by rising oceans, with massive walls holding the seas back for the rich and comfortable while the poor and desperate make do in a newly Venice-ized city. The water everywhere and the heat that forces everyone to sleep during the day and come out only once the sun has set ensures that the entire movie is nicely neon-slicked. (The delicious cinematography is by Paul Cameron [21 Bridges, The Commuter].)
But Joy misses the boat — probably a water taxi here — on the subplot revolving around a billionaire property developer (Brett Cullen: Joker, The Shallows) meant to be emblematic of the rich assholes who bought up all the land that was gonna stay dry before the sea levels rose, thereby condemning everyone else to a life on the water. There’s background noise here about anger among the proles rising to a fever pitch in this Miami, but it barely crosses the film’s consciousness: Watts even snarks about how Nick has been so consumed by his quest to find Mae that he’s missed an apparently very obvious sociopolitical development in the city. But we’ve missed it, too. Reminiscence needs to have been letting us feel that simmer all along to make it work… something that is essential by the finale. Mae is meant to be struggling, but she certainly doesn’t come across as a gal who wonders how she’s gonna make rent every month, as she tells Nick. And her claim that the glamorous gowns she wears to work — she’s a torch singer in a bar on the seedy-watery side of town, because of course she is — are thrift-store finds is laughable.
All that said, Jackman, Ferguson, and Newton are as much a joy to behold as ever they are: these are three immense talents with the enormous charisma to rivet our attention and elevate what they are given to work with. But that still only brings Reminiscence up to the realm of the mediocre.