The new film Reminiscence starts off with some visually-arresting images, that of skyscrapers in downtown Miami already partially submerged in sea water, with waves pounding on the side of them. This allusion to the effects of climate change portends an interesting story about what humanity does when the reality of rising oceans comes to our cities, and how we adapt in order to survive.
When the story starts, though, instead of going down that road, writer/director Lisa Joy instead commits to a bungling sci-fi plot involving an obsessive private detective. That private eye, Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman), runs a struggling agency with his assistant, Watts (Thandiwe Newton), that uses the futuristic technology of Reminiscence to allow clients to access their memories. Sometimes Nick uses it for actual detective work, but in an effort to keep the lights on, he often uses it to let people delve back into the favorite times of their lives.
One day, a cabaret singer named Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) walks in, claiming she needs help finding her lost keys. Immediately smitten, Nick soon goes down the rabbit hole after getting a glimpse into her private life. But Mae holds more secrets than Nick knows, and his obsession with her takes him down some dark roads, ones that could lead to his own downfall.
Joy, the co-creator of HBO’s Westworld, seems to have a thing for telling depressing stories set in the future. But while the TV show actually has something interesting to say about the human condition, this film falls flat in that regard. With her characters and dialogue, you can tell that Joy wants the film to be an homage and update to the old-time private detective movies, but the one thing she forgot was to include the intrigue those films have. Her story is too convoluted for its own good, leading to set pieces and villains that make no sense.
Joy’s Westworld co-creator, Jonathan Nolan, serves as a producer on the film, which makes sense as the idea for the film feels like something Christopher Nolan, Jonathan’s brother and longtime collaborator, would make. But where Christopher finds ways to keep the audience on their toes both visually and story-wise, Joy never finds her footing. It’s like she’s checking boxes for her characters along the way instead of actually making sure that the relationships between them are compelling.
The Reminiscence machine itself is a cool concept, with participants lying in a water-filled chamber while their memories play on a wispy canvas for Nick. But watching the memories unfurl requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, as the film contends that memories are like actual recorded video. Very few people have photographic recall; the reality is more like doctored clips that may or may not be accurate. That may not be as cinematic, but the way the memories are presented in this film, they’re not all that compelling anyway.
Jackman has such a presence to him that he remains watchable even when what his character is doing is not. Newton seems to be in the cast merely as a favor to her Westworld colleagues; the minor part doesn't do her justice, although she makes it more than it might have been with another actor. Ferguson also deserves more of a showcase than the film gives her, as her character boils down to little more than having a pretty face and voice.
Reminiscence had a thought-provoking story it could have explored in its back pocket, but it instead chose the dull route while keeping the climate change one merely as a backdrop. Memories can be fleeting, and anyone who sees this film will likely forget it soon thereafter.
Reminiscence is now playing in theaters and on HBO Max.