What’s new, everyone? When the trailer for the science-fiction neo-noir thriller Reminiscence dropped back in June 2021, I thought it was one of the best cut trailers of the year. And then it had its release date of August 30 in theaters and on HBO Max, at which point critics tore into it. Now that I’ve had the chance to watch it myself, I have to say that my feelings towards it are much less harsh. In fact, I’m somewhat partial towards it while acknowledging its shortcomings.
In case you aren’t sure what Reminiscence is about, let me give you the synopsis. It follows Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman), a war veteran-turned-private investigator who, alongside fellow vet and longtime friend Emily “Watts” Sanders (Thandiwe Newton), runs a small-time business that provides an enticing amenity: allowing clients to lie back in a water tank contraption and engage in “reminiscences” by reliving whatever memories they want, whether it revolves around treasured time spent with a deceased loved one or simply finding out where their keys have been misplaced. Taking into account that the story is set in a near-future Miami that’s half sunk underwater due to rising ocean levels (most likely a symptom of climate change, though that isn’t explicitly confirmed), such a machine is valuable for those who want to escape reality and take brief refuge in their rose-colored memories. When mysterious lounge singer Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) enters the building to make use of its nostalgia-filled service, she ends up falling into a whirlwind romance with Bannister, then disappearing with no explanation. This spurs on Bannister to pursue the all-consuming quest of tracking her down via reminiscences from his own mind as well as other people’s, uncovering a web of crime and corruption in which Mae had been caught up along the way.
Directed, written, and produced by Lisa Joy (co-creator of the Westworld TV show with her husband Jonathan Nolan, who is also one of the producers for Reminiscence and the brother of Christopher Nolan) in her feature directorial debut, Reminiscence is something I consider to be underrated, although the script isn’t without its weak spots. It’s ironic that the movie warns us about the dangers of becoming hooked on the past, since it unabashedly pulls tropes from Blade Runner, Inception, Chinatown, and multiple other examples. This results in a story that isn’t all too innovative as it utilizes the grungy sci-fi setting, the mind-diving, the world-weary P.I. who deploys constant voiceovers, the enigmatic femme fatale who leaves behind grim secrets for said P.I. to unearth, etc.
Strange as it may seem, Joy’s contentment with abiding by such clichés isn’t a massive turnoff for me. Well, except for those cheesy voiceovers. Sure, some of them do enhance the experience, and I can accept that this is a staple of the noir genre, but there were several times when Bannister made a glaringly obvious statement that just left me feeling like Joy wanted to hold my hand because she didn’t trust me enough to interpret the events for myself. And did Bannister really have to make that cornball comment about the moments of your life being beads on the necklace of time? I think not. Admittedly, I haven’t consumed much film noir, so I wonder if the fact that I haven’t been beaten down with its tropes is what’s responsible for leaving me higher on Reminiscence than most other viewers despite my awareness of its derivative nature.
That being said, unlike most of the critics who ripped this movie to shreds, I don’t find it to be a fiasco. Yes, it’s flawed, but it boasts quite a few underrated pros. First off, the conceptually fascinating worldbuilding is fleshed-out with details that make this environment feel like it really does exist: the mechanics and ideas that come with using a reminiscence machine, the mafia-like land barons who gentrify Miami by living within the safety of dammed enclosures and driving lower-class citizens to the increasingly flooded lands outside, the war in which Bannister and Watts fought (although the root of the war itself isn’t ever described). Building a technologically advanced landscape that feels palpable is a goal that every sci-fi story tries to achieve, and Reminiscence easily accomplishes it with the aid of stylishly moody visuals for the submerging city and the reminiscences. The waves washing through the coastline of Miami and coming up against the levees that have been arranged around the city’s interior, the holograms that show what memories Bannister’s clients are reliving and add an aspect of intrusive voyeurism to these reminiscences, the natural lighting that supplements scenes with a profound sense of hazy longing—all of this, with the help of Collateral and Westworld cinematographer Paul Cameron, combines together to form an atmosphere of haunting allure that draws you into the sorrow and gloom weighing heavily inside those who foresee no happy future for this gradually collapsing world and are anxious to let their memories engulf them. The seductively melancholic score by Game of Thrones, Westworld, and Eternals composer Ramin Djawadi bolsters the tone even further.
The cast is another impressive element. You’ve got Jackman bringing a compelling quality to Bannister’s dark and obsessive mentality, so much so that he felt reminiscent (yes, that’s right) of Jackman’s Robert Angier in the Christopher Nolan magician thriller The Prestige. You’ve got Ferguson infusing Mae with an old-timey and bewitching Hollywood charisma that’s evocative of leading ladies like Faye Dunaway and Jane Greer, especially when she croons jazz tunes such as Cy Coleman’s “I Walk a Little Faster.” Together, Jackman and Ferguson are abuzz with chemistry that gets you invested in their relationship in spite of Bannister not really being an antihero who you’re supposed to like due to the lengths he goes to and the memories he infringes on during his mission to find Mae (The Greatest Showman was the first picture in which Jackman and Ferguson costarred, so maybe I’ll finally put that on sometime to consume more of their onscreen dynamic). Newton (with whom Joy has previously collaborated on Westworld) is riveting in her own right, and while the movie does give her a scene to display her badassery, I wish her character could have been developed a little more deeply rather than simply being the best friend who repeatedly warns Bannister to let go of the past. I enjoyed seeing Cliff Curtis (The Meg, Doctor Sleep) and Daniel Wu (Warcraft, the Tomb Raider movie starring Alicia Vikander) carry some presence in their supporting turns, though the script doesn’t give them much meat to chew on. I hope Curtis gets more to do in Avatar 2—a movie that will feature Kate Winslet, Vin Diesel, Edie Falco, and Michelle Yeoh for good measure. But I digress.
Like I said before, Reminiscence definitely has its problems, but I don’t think it deserves all the hate—not the Rotten Tomatoes score of 37% from both critics and audiences, not the $15.5 million that it grossed on a $54–68 million budget, not the reputation of having the worst all-time opening for a movie playing in over 3,000 theaters. It’s a shame, considering how much time Joy has dedicated to this venture, having penned the script all the way back in 2013, then being attached as director years after it had been voted into the Hollywood Blacklist (that is, a list of unproduced screenplays that have garnered substantial buzz in the film industry). In addition, it’s worth noting the rarity of a woman of color being able to helm such a movie, and I hope it being a financial and critical bomb doesn’t result in Joy being shunned from Hollywood. Mediocre white men have been in charge of much worse material, yet the industry is always eager to give them second chances. Joy clearly has ambition to spare, and personally, I’d love to see her explore it in another feature-length project. Reminiscence has certainly given me motivation to add Westworld to my watchlist.
At the end of the day, I found Reminiscence to be pretty enthralling, even though it doesn’t reach its fullest potential and transcend its influences as effectively as Lana and Lily Wachowski did when they drew from their own smorgasbord of sci-fi, action, and anime influences to create The Matrix. Revamping the janky dialogue and spicing up the screenplay with some trope subversions would have been greatly beneficial. After the critical renaissances that have surrounded previously reviled media like The Village, Jennifer’s Body, and Speed Racer as of late, I’m curious to see whether Reminiscence will encounter a renaissance of its own in one or two decades.
Until next time, stay healthy and stay strong!
Windup score: 68/100