A beautiful dame strolls into the shadowy office of a rumpled private eye. The P.I.’s Girl Friday eyes the dame wearily, but the detective, sap that he is, is immediately gaga – unaware he’s about to stumble into trouble. You’ve seen this before in an innumerable number of pulpy black and white film noirs, and here comes Reminiscence to give it a twist. While those familiar noirs were rooted firmly in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, Reminiscence is set in the future, creating a sci-fi noir scenario that really leans into its influences, for better or worse.
None of this is new, exactly. Sci-fi and noir blended famously before in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. But Reminiscence is so beholden to the tropes of the genre that it begins to feel like it’s constantly winking at its audience. On top of that, the setting of the movie never quite feels as futuristic as it should. Everyone here behaves as if they’re from a bygone era. To be fair, everything old is new again, and perhaps the folks of Reminiscence‘s future have entered a phase where they act nostalgic for the 1930s-50s the way people in the early 2000s started to fawn over the 1980s.
Hugh Jackman is Nick Banister, a rumpled, unshaven, haunted sort of guy who narrates the flick with pulpy purple dialogue, spitting out lines like, “If there are ghosts to be found it’s us who haunt the past,” and “Time is no longer a one-way street.” That second one refers to Nick’s line of work – he’s “a private investigator of the mind.” Which means he operates a machine that can extract people’s memories and project them as if they were a movie. Clients come to Nick, climb into the machine – which, in true Altered States fashion, involves a flotation tank – and have him pull up their memories so that they can relive them. The client is essentially thrust back into the memory, able to relive it again, all while Nick watches.
This is all a bit too convoluted, and Reminiscence doesn’t bother to linger on the science of how Nick’s work, well, works. All we need to know is that this exists, and Nick knows how to use it. He lives in a futuristic Florida that has been flooded, turning the Sunshine State into a kind of new Venice, where there are no streets, only waterways, and instead of cabs, people take boats. The look of this sunken Florida is extraordinary – it’s clearly a digitally enhanced creation, but it feels real and lived-in. And yet it also feels like a dream; hazy, and beautiful, and burning with lights rising above the dark water. These visuals alone are almost enough to keep Reminiscence afloat.
Nick works out of a dingy, shadow-filled office with his sidekick/assistant/coworker Watts (Thandiwe Newton). The two of them have been friends a long time, and we learn they fought in “the wars” together. We’re told that at some point after the world flooded, wars broke out, but we never get the full details. There are just enough hints to set the scene, and I was quite happy that Reminiscence was willing to keep things mysterious rather than over-explain everything. A lesser movie might’ve even opened with text explaining exactly what was going on here in the future, and why.
One day, a beautiful woman named Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) wanders into the office asking if Nick can use his memory device to help her remember where she lost her keys. It sounds like a silly request, and Watts is immediately suspicious of this woman. But Nick takes one look at Mae and practically turns into the human version of the emoji with hearts for eyes. He’s smitten, and the way director Lisa Joy shoots Ferguson – constantly bathed in a kind of ethereal light – it’s easy to see why.
Nick’s lust for Mae is refreshing, especially in a mainstream Hollywood movie. Blockbusters have felt particularly chaste these days; the ever-popular Marvel Cinematic Universe is the most sexless series of films ever made. So when things begin to get hot and heavy between Nick and Mae, and Joy actually takes the time to film a (PG-13-rated) sex scene, it feels genuinely fresh and exciting. There’s nothing wrong with letting characters in your expensive, effects-laden movie want to bone each other, that’s all I’m saying.
Nick and Mae’s relationship seems perfect – until Mae up and disappears one day. Nick is so heartbroken that he reverts to spending time in his own machine, reliving his old memories of his time with Mae. Watts wants him to just move on – she’s convinced that Mae walked out on Nick because she’s bad news. But Nick is convinced something bad must’ve happened to his lady love, and so he starts investigating.
In true noir fashion, the further Nick digs, the more danger he ends up in. It’s almost standard practice for the private eye to get roughed up as his investigation goes on (think of Jack Nicholson getting his nose slit in Chinatown), and this is another fun element Joy is playing around with. Nick can handle himself in a fight, but he’s not some superhuman who can kick everyone’s ass. He can easily get sucker-punched in the gut, or ganged-up on by goons, and come out worse for wear. A hero who is easily breakable? How novel! Making this even more enjoyable is Newton’s character, who is someone who can kick everyone’s ass, and who has to bust in and save Nick on more than occasion.
Unfortunately, the deeper the mystery grows, the rougher Reminiscence becomes. Joy’s script grows clunky and needlessly confusing. Nick learns Mae had lots of secrets, and was mixed up with a drug lord (Daniel Wu) and the crooked cop (Cliff Curtis) who worked with him. These guys are villainous creeps, so Nick understandably assumes they had something to do with Mae’s disappearance. Meanwhile, there’s lots of talk of the greedy upper-class who own the city and build drylands for themselves while forcing the common folk to live surrounded by water. The corruption and class divide elements are built into the trappings of noir as well, but Reminiscence never fully understands what to do with this, and it begins to bog the film down even when the picture starts to grow more clear.
It all culminates in a wild misstep of an ending; a conclusion that fails to elicit any emotion it’s reaching for. All the mystery, all the romance, all the intrigue we just sat through suddenly feels meaningless. Pity, because Reminiscence is so very, very close to succeeding. Joy has a great visual style – there’s a fight scene in a flooded room with a piano that’s genuinely stunning to watch – and the noir/sci-fi mash-up is often enjoyable. But Reminiscence never manages to feel like a memory worth revisiting.
/Film Rating: 6 out of 10
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