Reminiscence is the sort of film that I hate giving a negative review of, because it’s a movie that does so much right, even as it squanders those good qualities on a middling story. Lisa Joy both wrote Reminiscence and makes her feature directorial debut with it. She also co-created, wrote, directed, produced (and I assume was also the key grip, catering supervisor, head puppeteer, and chief electrician) for a little show you might have heard of called Westworld.
Short version: this is a gorgeous film that teases at being much more. It is well worth watching, even as its flaws drag it down and keep it from being something truly great.
The setup is all noir, transplanted into a near future mostly distinguished by being flooded due to ocean-level rise and the invention of nifty memory-retrieval technology that allows people to relive moments from their past, or to allow the police to dig through them for evidence. Hugh Jackman is Nick the detective (er, memory-retrieval specialist) who’s down on his luck, Thandiwe Newton is his hard-drinking partner, and Rebecca Ferguson is the dame who’s all legs and mystery. Forget it, Wolverine, it’s Waterworld.
That’s the noir side of things, and it’s the side that doesn’t work. It’s a rather dull story of betrayal and tired twists, and everything depending on the protagonist doing the dumb straightforward thing every single time. What does work? Everything but the actual story.
The setting is gorgeously realized, a science fiction dystopia after the waters have risen to drown coastal cities and the subsequent border wars have burned down to their ashes. We meet Nick in a Miami that’s become a trash fire Venice, the streets turned to canals navigated by decrepit boats. Even the dry streets are ankle deep in debris-choked water, the drowned first floors of buildings still filled with the abandoned belongings of those who fled. The rich live on the lands above the waves, the poor scramble in the dankness below. It’s a damp post-apocalypse, but then all stories of our future are converging on the post-apocalypse.
This is a world peopled by richly realized and meticulously painted characters. Daniel Wu only gets a few minutes of screen time as Saint Joe, but mesmerizes with a syrupy New Orleans drawl as a drug kingpin parceling out his backstory of being there when the levies broke and they just let the poor drown in concentration camps. Or there’s the horror show of a rich woman who in her dementia has built a sound stage of her best memory, and a literal line of identically dressed actors out the door, to play and replay the best memory with her lost and dead love. Or the homeless, legless veteran who again and again returns to the same memory, of himself with legs, playing fetch with his long-dead dog. Over and over there are no small characters, each one feeling alive and vibrant.
The memory technology brims with such potential, bubbling over with themes and connections that could have been explored. It teases them in bits of dialogue, hinting at notions like how a memory viewed too many times becomes burned in, becomes less accurate the more you experience it and sample it. Or the way that you can see something in someone else’s memories that they can’t see for themselves any longer. Or the way that you become lost in the past — even as it becomes less real and more fictional — and live life on an endless loop of looking backward. Memory, Nick muses in the almost mandatory noir voice over, becomes an addiction. (Editor’s note: Sure sounds like Strange Days to me!)
And Jackman tries so hard with what he’s given, to squeeze more out of this. The climax is heartbreaking, and he damned near churns your heart like he did in the last ten minutes of Logan. A time-shifted goodbye, only seen through the eyes of another. Those moments are something transcendent.
But none of it matters to the plot. That’s the tragedy here. A gorgeously realized setting populated by memorable fully fleshed out and vibrant characters, the perfect plot device technology of being able to relive memory, and the hints of deep thought given to all the implications and philosophical conundrums that can create. It’s screaming for a good layered story that connects those themes and lets them resonate with each other into a crescendo. But instead, it’s wasted on a generic noir plot of the mysterious lady walking into the scruffy private eye’s office. None of the thought and implications matter in the least. They’re nothing but window dressing.
The middle descends into nothing but a ten-minute-long fist fight. Like, it just keeps going. And going. Nick’s only move is walking into a situation, demanding answers, and then getting beat up for it. Which, sure, is kind of noir-esque. But usually the private eye is a bit clever about it. The actual plot of the movie felt like the Dreamland season of Archer without the jokes.
Noir isn’t a dead end for science fiction. There’s practically a cottage industry of noir sci-fi from Blade Runner onward such that there’s probably more sci-fi noir filmed in the last few decades than there has been the traditional variety of noir. But when it works, it’s because the plot works with the themes to create something more than just the sum of the parts.
If you’ve got HBO Max, it’s worth the two hours of your time, watch it for the parts that shine.
Reminiscence is available in theaters as of August 20 and streaming for free on HBO Max through Sept. 19.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.