Exploring memories has always been a rich area to explore because the subject encourages people to reflect and ask questions about themselves. Why do certain memories persist more than others? Are events being recalled accurately, or has the truth been skewed because of time and subjectivity? How can reflecting on the past affect the future, and what lessons can be learned? Films like Memento (2000), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and Inception (2010) analysed such questions and poignantly searched for answers, even if definitive ones remained elusive. Reminiscence, while similar to the aforementioned films in terms of topic, sadly doesn’t measure up thanks to convoluted and arbitrary plot points, matter-of-fact narration, and constant genre-shifting.
Reminiscence marks the feature film directorial debut of Lisa Joy, a writer best known for co-creating the Westworld television series. Just like that HBO sci-fi drama, the film takes place in a not so distant future where climate change has flooded cities and resulted in temperatures so hot that people have become nocturnal. Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) is a memory guide working in Miami, helping clients go through the ‘reminiscence’ process, where they slide into his machine to be sedated and relive their memories of choice.
Enter Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), a mysterious woman who’s simply misplaced her keys and needs Nick’s services to locate them. After their session concludes, Nick then seeks out the club Mae performs at to return a pair of earrings she left behind, and shortly thereafter a relationship forms between the two of them. As Nick and Mae grow closer, an intimate moment between the two is interrupted as Nick emerges from his own machine, revealing that he’s actually been experiencing an old relationship. His colleague, Watts (Thandiwe Newton), explains that he’s been clinging to memories of Mae ever since she left him unexpectedly, and looking for clues or signs she may have been in trouble. Watts never trusted Mae in the first place, so she thinks Nick is wasting time.
When not serving their clients, Nick and Watts contract out their services to law enforcement, searching for memories of suspects to help with unsolved crimes. While experiencing the memory of a criminal associated with a local drug kingpin, Nick spots Mae working in a different club, this one in New Orleans, which would’ve been five years prior to having met her. Convinced the memory can explain why Mae left him so suddenly, Nick sets out to untangle the mystery and get answers.
The rest of the movie plays as a mystery film, with Nick navigating the seedy underbellies of Miami and New Orleans, to the chagrin of Watts. Between encounters, Nick finds himself in and out of the reminiscence machine, reliving old experiences, clinging to his past relationship, and looking for breadcrumbs that’ll lead him to Mae.
Surrounding the main plot are details that paint a picture of this near-future, but many of those details serve as context and are never explored in much depth. With climate change being such a hot-button issue right now, Joy could’ve used the story to make a statement or at least reflect on where things stand currently against an ecological disaster. Instead, once audiences know cities are now underwater, that’s the end of it.
Similarly, there’s a future war referenced (that Nick and Watts are veterans of) and talk of internment camps, but it feels like these are only added to quickly explain why Nick and Watts are both battle-tested marksmen, which is a skill they’ll need to track down Mae. Most of these details are also delivered verbally by Nick’s narration, which leads to problems of Reminiscence not showing too much about its world.
There are numerous action scenes, which do work at times, but Reminiscence isn’t confident about what genre it wants to be. Blending multiple genres together can work, but many scenes feel segmented and interrupt the flow of the narrative. There are moments where Joy nods to neo-noir sci-fi, like Blade Runner (1982), before jumping into romantic scenes that quickly erase the mood set previously. And then there are action scenes that bring a level of campiness and redundancy, while Nick and Watts sometimes feel like they’re in a buddy cop action movie thanks to some of their dialogue.
All of these flaws make it difficult for Jackman, Ferguson, and Newton to thrive on camera. While they’re all successful actors in their own right, there’s not a lot for any of them to work with here. The dialogue only serves the narrative and makes every character appear like one-dimensional archetypes, which means it’s harder to buy into their adventure. And with no investment in the characters or the story, the film simply doesn’t work.
Reminiscence has a concept that’s intriguing and original, but there are too many factors working against Lisa Joy in fully realising the potential of her own script. The film feels fragmented and unfocused due to its competing tones, so considering this is Joy’s movie debut there’s plenty for her to improve upon. And like the film posits, there’s always so much to be learned from past experience.
USA | 2021 | 116 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Lisa Joy.
starring: Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson, Thandwie Newton, Cliff Curtis, Marina de Tavira, Daniel Wu, Brett Cullen & Mojean Aria.