Reminiscence starts in a half-inundated Miami where rising sea levels have flooded the streets. Yet, halfway through the film, it shifts to a similarly flooded New Orleans, where a Chinese American criminal named Saint Joe lives. Baca is the drug of choice in the film’s near future, and Joe, played by Daniel Wu, has made a mini-empire out of the pills and a few crooked cops along the way. In Reminiscence, he’s only a sidekick, another stumbling block for Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) on his quest to discover what happened to his vanished lover, Mae (Rebecca Ferguson). Joe, on the other hand, is far more vivid in his brief appearance. In his brief appearance, Joe is a far more flamboyant figure than Nick, who is a noir hero remade for a sci-fi setting, a sad-eyed veteran of a recent fight; the details of which are left vague.
Joe uses Mandarin in his speech, menacingly referring adversaries as pengyou and saying things like “the pleasure shi wo de”. Outsiders are taunted to keep up in an obviously contrived manner that moves from amusing to reading as a task. He didn’t serve because he was rounded up as part of an equallyHe didn’t deliver because he was rounded up as part of a similarly enigmatic but familiar-sounding incarceration, made all the more terrible by the levee failures. These intriguing nuances are mentioned casually, as though the rote gunfire that follows is more engaging. Reminiscence is the most damned thing — a film full of fascinating ideas that it never gets around to explore because it’s focused on a love mystery that’s never that interesting.
Some of these ideas are familiar. Westworld co-creator Lisa Joy’s directorial debut, Reminiscence, is evocative of several previous films. Nick’s invention, which allows a patient to relive projected memories on a screen or hologram strands at the same time, is similar to Strange Days or The Final Cut. At the same time, the sci-fi noir stylings are reminiscent of Dark City. The way the elite live in their own luxurious gated enclave, on dry ground maintained by pumping water out into the more impoverished areas, is out of every other dystopian story – a degree of recognition is unavoidable (as well as our real life).
While the notion of coastal cities being turned into haphazard versions of Venice by climate change isn’t new, Joy’s portrayal onscreen is so vivid that it feels like a waste when the film doesn’t concentrate on it more as something lived-in. Residents gliding across what used to be South Beach in wooden boats and going nocturnal to avoid the daily heat, her Miami remains neon-lit in the face of the flooding, buildings partway underwater but inhabited where they may be.
Watts (Thandiwe Newton), Nick’s army comrade turned coworker works out of a depressing old bank building in a submerged but still livable neighborhood. Nick worked as an interrogator during the war, and the two now work together with the DA to obtain information from suspects and witnesses. The majority of their clients, though, are ordinary folks looking to relive happier times.
Mae claims she merely wants help finding her keys when she makes a spectacular entrance at closing time, but Nick is quickly smitten. He discovers she’s a nightclub artist and looks her up at work, finally falling in love with her — but, in a repeating carpet pull, he pulls the rug out from under her. After barely a few months together, Mae cleared out her apartment and departed without a trace, prompting Nick to use his technology to figure out how the relationship ended.
Reminiscence fails to provide a cause for Mae’s grip on Nick or for Nick as a protagonist. Ferguson is a captivating presence who continues to be underutilized in parts. However, this film at least has the benefit of seeing Mae through the foggy lens of Nick’s faulty, idealized memory. On the other side, Jackman is stumped by Nick, who is supposed to be tortured and obsessive while yet being unquestionably good.
Reminiscence tries to invoke classics like Laura and Vertigo when it comes to non-sci-fi themes, but Nick isn’t dark, and his fixation isn’t scary. As an example, he uses the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice but rather than being grandly tragic, the course of their relationship is simply foreseeable.
Despite all of the enjoyable aspects that pass by on the periphery — such as the particulars of day-to-day living in a semi-submerged city, or the people imprisoned, or the implications of the ramifications of memory devices, which we see being used as a sort of senior clubhouse at the end— the film feels trapped by its own influences, by its dogged commitment to its overdetermined genre mash-up of the main story. Reminiscence is all the more aggravating because of its squandered potential and the way it relegates all of its best stuff to the margins as if that’s the only way to include it. Why bother with your main characters when they’re so flat and lifeless, especially when they’re so dull?