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Written and directed by Lisa Joy (co-creator of HBO/Showcase’s Westworld), Reminiscence stars Hugh Jackman as Nick Bannister, an investigator of memory living in Miami in the near-future. Sea levels have risen, the divide between rich and poor is like a canyon, and people are addicted to the nostalgic past as a means to escape the depressing present. Bannister runs an establishment with Watts (Thandiwe Newton) which can use futuristic technology to help people live out their memories, but when the mysterious Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) walks through the door, Nick’s life changes forever.
In the most recent issue of Empire Magazine, Lisa Joy was interviewed about the influences for her directorial debut. She talked about how the film’s story and characters were most inspired by the Golden Age sharp-tongued noir films and thrillers she absorbed after a young life deprived of all cinema. Films like Vertigo, The Thin Man, and Out of the Past, and in Reminiscence the effect of these influences is clear.
Nick Bannister is the brown liquor-swilling veteran now working as an investigator who becomes obsessed with the red-haired rouge-lipped femme fatale that one day walked through that door. Of all the high-tech “we remember it for you wholesale” nostalgia joints in all of the flooded streets of Miami, she had to walk into his.
However, Joy’s attempt to blend science-fiction and noir storytelling has been done and perfected twice over with the Blade Runner films. Some critics, such as one for the Guardian, have called Reminiscence an “Inception rip-off”, but once Joy’s film leans closer to other movies like Blade Runner, Strange Days and Duncan Jones’ Netflix misfire Mute.
One fatal mistake the film makes is with its narration. Typically in noir films, the narration is designed to be a way of adapting the source material’s first-person narrative, completely within the protagonist’s mindset as they piece the clues together. Blade Runner infamously had a voiceover narration by an incredibly bored Harrison Ford, and this was removed from the theatrical cut because the filmmakers decided to trust the audience better. We don’t need to be told Roy Batty’s death is sad, that much is made quite clear.
Hugh Jackman’s constant narration in this movie is meant to be a throwback to noir storytelling, but there’s no source material to be adapting the language of. This is an original story influence by tropes of the cinematic sub-genre, and instead of servicing a more interesting stream-of-consciousness tone, the narration is half repetitive statements about love and half completely obvious exposition. The choice is made more confusing by a final act reveal of that Bannister is talking to himself, which explains some of the first-person look at his relationship to Ferguson’s Mae but fails to explain why he keeps going on about the “land barons” and “the war”. He already knows this. Why is he educating himself on things he already knows?
Reminiscence is filled with interesting concepts that bleed out of a science fiction noir story using futuristic technology related to memories. The script touches upon the addictive qualities of nostalgia especially in a time of despair decay, how our memories can deceive us to invisible emotions, how no story has a happy ending, and some minor themes of wealth inequality and social injustice.
The technology that the characters use to access memories is intriguing, and the dark after-effects of such devices creates a few fascinating scenarios. Several sequences end abruptly as they are revealed to be memories other characters are trying to access, creating multiple layers of the story that fits into the Nolan family (Lisa Joy is married to and creative partners with Jonathan Nolan). One twisted concept for a character played by Marina de Tavira is that she’s gone back so many times to one specific memory that her entire waking life has been designed to replicate it word-for-word and moment-by-moment.
Unfortunately, for all of the ambitions that Lisa Joy has as a filmmaker, she struggles to coalesce them into something truly unique or cohesive. The technology has a similar apparatus to the SQUID devices from Kathryn Bigelow’s superb Strange Days, mixed with a few touches of the Precog pools and displays from Minority Report. Even the idea of accessing memories and living through them like virtual reality is the entire basis of the Assassin’s Creed games.
The super-addictive drug that becomes incredibly important to several characters also doesn’t have a clear name. Is it “baka”, “balka”, “bulk”, “balk” or “bacta”? Everyone says it differently and it’s infuriating. The futuristic setting of climate change raising sea levels and making the days too hot to function in is just background, something different to throw in for the hell of it. This movie could have been set today in our chaotic world and it would have changed nothing.
Lisa Joy also doesn’t stick close enough to making this an interesting noir film. Blade Runner had a few brief action moments, but they were brutal, dark, and over in a matter of seconds. They represented amoral and ruthless actions committed by the desperate characters in a world filled with haze and uncertainty. Most of the film is about the investigation into who Roy Batty and his group of dying Replicants are and why they’re committing their actions.
Reminiscence sets up its core mystery of Mae’s disappearance linking with a criminal network, drug distribution, and the illegitimate heir to a land empire, but then gets sidetracked with unnecessary and overwrought action sequences. A noir movie gets less interesting when characters suddenly pull out assault rifles or dual-wield pistols like a John Woo movie. One notable action scene has Nick Bannister chasing Cliff Curtis’ mysterious gangster across rooftops, culminating in a wide-angle side-scrolling hand-to-hand fight, Bannister being armed with a hammer. At first, one might think the filmmakers are going to do a neat homage to Oldboy’s famous hallway fight, but then the scene is cut to pieces with claustrophobic medium angles that dull it’s proper effect.
Simply put: Reminiscence doesn’t trust its audience enough. It deploys ideas rich with potential, over-explains them with Jackman’s droning monologues, and then repeats the explanations over-and-over again until they’ve lost all meaning. Jackman is giving 150% and it messily walks the line of being too much, Ferguson makes for a good femme fatale but she already perfects that role in the Mission: Impossible films, and Thandiwe Newton is still the very best, no complaints there. The actors are left high-and-dry with convoluted and clunky material, the dialogue is filled with noir-inspired euphemisms and metaphors that sound rather silly, and it still manages to have five endings with a runtime under 2 hours. Reminiscence is slick yet dull, ambitious without efficient execution, inspired but unexceptional, and is a thoroughly ambivalent start for Lisa Joy as a film director.
Director: Lisa Joy
Writer: Lisa Joy
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson, Thandiwe Newton
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