Don’t Look Back
A sci-fi noir love story about a machine that can access people’s memories, Reminiscence is far from memorable. The film is set in a near-future Miami where climate change and border wars have left the city partly underwater. Since it’s too hot to be out in the daytime, people live nocturnally. The impoverished reside on the soggy streets while the wealthy or ‘barons’ live on a large dryland platform that’s blocked off from the rest of the waterlogged city. Spectacularly brought to life by state-of-the-art VFX and expert lensing, this dystopian backdrop gives the flick a breathtaking Blade Runner (1982) meets The Maltese Falcon (1941) type of vibe. Witnessing trains speed across glistening oceans and seeing magic hour city views of a metropolis half-submerged in water are really something to behold. While visually striking, however, this milieu adds nothing to the story of Reminiscence, making it nice window-dressing and nothing else.
The actual story could literally take place anywhere. It’s centered around Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman), a war veteran who pioneered a machine called Reminiscence. It allows him to transfer people’s memories onto a digital projector for all to see, in turn letting the subject relive certain moments of their life as if it were happening for the very first time. The ‘sessions’ are recorded onto clear synthetic square files then stored away. Initially employed by the military for interrogation purposes, Nick now uses the contraption to run a small business in an abandoned bank, where miserable Miami folk (and a few regular clients) come to re-experience better days via his gadget. To access their memories, the user must attach a doohickey onto their cranium, then lie in a sensory deprivation tank (basically a bath of water), with Nick’s calming voice guiding them, ‘you’re going on a journey,’ he says ‘a journey through memory.’ Nick runs the struggling business with Watts (Thandiwe Newton), a platonic friend/partner who served with him in the military.
One night, just as they’re just about to close shop, a gorgeous redhead named Mae (Rebecca Ferguson and my God, is she beautiful here) waltzes into the building looking somewhat distressed. She tells Nick and Watts that she’s lost her keys and asks for a quick session to help figure out where she’s left them. Watts assumes that she’s a femme fatale who’s probably up to no good and tries to brush her off, but it’s too late for the red-blooded Nick, who’s already been entranced by Mae — and can you blame him? After viewing Mae sing an elegant rendition of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s ‘Where or When,’ which she performed in a silky red dress earlier that evening at the Coconut Club, Nick finds himself in a whirlwind relationship with the enigmatic woman, one that changes the gruff loner into a lovesick puppy.
All is well until Mae suddenly disappears without warning. This drives poor Nick to keep reliving his relationship with Mae over and over again via Reminiscence, a practice that could forever damage his mind. Watts (who’s clearly got a thing for Nick) advises him to let it go as she believes that Mae was nothing but trouble and most likely a con artist. Desperate to figure out what happened to his beloved, Nick continues to use Reminiscence in the hope of noticing something he’s missed. It’s not looking good until Nick spots Mae in the memory of a criminal whilst doing some side-work interrogating bad guys for the district attorney’s office. From there, Nick continues to search for Mae with the intention of finding out where she went and who she really was. This sends him into the seedy New Orleans underworld, where he crosses paths with a drug kingpin known as Saint Joe (Daniel Wu) and a disfigured corrupt cop named Cyrus Boothe (Cliff Curtis). Also coming into play are the affairs of an über-rich land baron named Walter Sylvan (Brett Cullen), his insane wife and one-time client Tamara (Marina de Tavira), and their sniveling son, Sebastian (Mojean Aria).
Written and directed by Lisa Joy, who’s making her feature film debut, Reminiscence is a frustrating watch. Its futuristic setting is intriguing in and of itself, evoking work by her brother-in-law Christopher Nolan — think 2010’s Inception — but does very little to serve the actual narrative. Joy, who co-created HBO’s Westworld, leaves a lot of fundamental questions about the dystopian world unanswered. What led to the border wars that devastated the city? How did the conflict end? What effect has it had on the citizens outside of the tattoos that every war veteran seems to have? There’s also a clear divide going on between the rich and poor in this semi-sunken Miami, but Joy doesn’t really delve into class conflict either. Then there is the memory machine itself. How does it work? Furthermore, Joy’s script has very little to say about nostalgia and/or the power/curse of memories, only that some people dwell in the past while others look to the future. The central mystery is also very convoluted, relying heavily on names of characters we’ve barely met; on a first-time viewing, some of the particulars are most likely to go over audiences’ heads.
On that note, Nick’s drive to find the mysterious Mae feels underdeveloped, seeing as he barely knew who she was when they were together. Moving at a dull, dreary pace, the film basically follows a weatherworn Jackman (who provides that classic first-person noir narration) from one scene to another, looking to unravel a mystery that, to be honest, is pretty hard to get invested in. While the pieces of the larger puzzle do eventually click into place, the emotional coda at the end of the movie simply doesn’t pack as much of a punch as it ought to. Joy tries to break things up with a couple of action sequences; one is an oddly choreographed shoot-out that features the clumsiest use of Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted Love’ ever, and the second is a more intimate scuffle that winds up at the bottom of a haunting underwater ballroom. And look, while not every film needs to be chock-full of Marvel-type humor, a joke or two wouldn’t have gone astray here.
To his credit, Hugh Jackman, Logan (2017), does the best he can as Nick, the detective figure of this story, a man who’s clearly jaded but still hasn’t lost faith in humanity. Jackman’s chemistry with his The Greatest Showman co-star Rebecca Ferguson continues to shine despite their romance never really taking off here. The always-watchable Ferguson plays her character like a cross between Jessica Rabbit and Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946), and she’s great — the film around her, however, not so good. Thandiwe Newton, Mission: Impossible II (2000), is also solid as Watts, who’s harboring feelings for Jackman’s Nick; their interplay gives a real sense that these two people share a past. There are also a few mentions of Watts’ drinking habits (apparently, she’s known for burying herself in a bottle), but this never really amounts to anything; it’s just sorta referred to.
Look, at the end of the day, Reminiscence should have been better. All the right ingredients are there — Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson, and Westworld’s Lisa Joy at the helm of another big-budget sci-fi thriller. While it’s evident that Joy knows how to craft bleak futuristic environments inhabited by damaged people in search of love and light, she struggles to connect these elements in any sort of meaningful way. Maybe a tighter script and a stronger focus will make her next project worth remembering. For now, though, file this one under missed opportunity.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Dan Cachia (Mr. Movie)