“The past can haunt a man – that’s what they say.”
This opening axiom is proved rather handily in this new hard-boiled sci-fi written and directed by Lisa Joy, best known as the co-creator of the TV version of Westworld and who now weaves an original noir-ish story that’s like Raymond Chandler meets Blade Runner, with a pinch of Inception thrown in.
Of course, it’s easy to get stuck in the past – and it probably doesn’t help that in this world, while the past is still a foreign country it comes with regular flights and frequent flyer miles, thanks to the titular memory-viewing technology used by lead character Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) and his sidekick Watts (Thandie Newton) to make a buck.
When they’re strapped into a watery tank and sedated, Nick can guide his customers (and the occasional criminal he’s called in to interrogate) through specific memories, which are rendered in three dimensions and available for third parties to view.
Of course, Nick himself never partakes, as he’s aware of the dangers of becoming addicted to the past… or at least, he doesn’t until the glamorous Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) flits in and out of his life, leaving him desperately reliving his own memories to look for clues to where she could have gone.
This is Joy’s riff on classic pulp detective novels and movies, with Jackman functioning as the Bogart-esque down-at-heel gumshoe searching for his dame, clashing with sleazy gangsters, dirty cops and unscrupulous land barons while his hard-drinking partner (Newton) urges him to leave well enough alone.
Once you realise this is what Reminiscence is going for the whole film snaps into focus, and it becomes a genuinely gripping ride – though of course, there are some twists on the noir-ish formula.
In this near-future (or alternate present) world the oceans have risen to dangerous levels, swamping coastal cities like Miami (where the film is set) and causing international clashes. Nick himself was involved in these “border wars” as a soldier, while other characters who were the victim of flooded internment camps crop up throughout the story.
Even the idea of film noir is flipped, with the raging heat of climate-ravaged Miami turning the locals nocturnal, and the bright daytime becoming the playground for Nick’s illicit investigation instead of the shadowy night.
Still, one of Reminiscence’s best qualities is how lightly it wears this world-building, with the flooded world creating a striking backdrop and interesting social conditions that funnel the story forward without directly affecting the main action or overloading the characters with oppressive exposition. It’s a light touch that extends to other parts of the film including the performances, especially when it comes to the leading man.
Jackman is appealingly downbeat as the battered Nick, who despite his special-forces background isn’t some kind of action superman – in fact, he largely loses every fight he gets in, with only his dogged determination to find Mae (or at least, to find out what happened to her) pushing him through various beatings, gunfights and near-drownings (given the watery setting, it seems appropriate that Nick nearly drowns quite a few times).
Jackman’s Greatest Showman co-star Ferguson (she also sings again!) also shines as the ephemeral Mae, whose motives remain ambiguous throughout the story. Are we seeing her through Nick’s rose-tinted glasses, or is she genuinely an innocent swept up into a world of drugs, crime and corruption? And does she want to be found, or was Nick just a means to an end?
Reminiscence keeps you guessing to the end, with a denouement that’s genuinely satisfying and wraps the whole puzzle box of a movie in a neat bow by the time the credits roll.
It’s not a perfect film by any means. At times the dialogue is overwritten and pompous, while a portentous voiceover from Jackman throughout the film often feels oppressive (though is partially redeemed through its usage towards the end of the film). And despite obvious parallels, it doesn’t quite have the depth or imaginative production design of fellow sci-fi noirs like Blade Runner, with some of the settings a little pedestrian given the potential of Joy’s world-building.
Still, overall Reminiscence is that rarest of beasts – a truly original film with its own story and nary a hint of a sequel, which leaves it feeling like the best kind of throwback. Watch it, and it’s sure to remain a pleasant memory.