'Reminiscence' a sci-fi noir ruminating on living in the past

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service (TNS)
Rebecca Ferguson, left, and Hugh Jackman star in "Reminiscence." The movie opens Friday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16 and on HBOMax.

In our current movie landscape, which churns with remakes, sequels and seemingly endless comic book characters, it’s notable (and laudable) when a new release takes a big, bold, and yes, original swing. Lisa Joy’s “Reminiscence” is one such big swing. Joy, one of brains behind “Westworld,” makes her feature directorial debut with her the Black List-approved script for “Reminiscence,” a dystopian detective story in which the private investigator gumshoes his way through memory to solve the mystery.

Like in any good noir, it starts with a femme fatale. Dressed in a red ball gown, backlit by piercing sunlight, Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) wanders into the office of Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) with a request. It’s classic noir stuff, down to the hardboiled, philosophical narration Nick provides. But the city they’re in is a waterlogged, post-apocalyptic Miami, humanity clinging to the vestiges of civilization that remain above the rising seas (it will come as no surprise that the wealthy live in an area called the Dry Lands).

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Nick, a vet of the Border Wars, is in the nostalgia business. Using a tank called the Reminiscence developed for interrogation purposes, he facilitates trips down memory lane for those who have nothing to look forward to and choose to look back, instead. It’s like hypnosis meets sensory deprivation, except Nick and his partner Watts (Thandiwe Newton) can watch the whole memory play out like a movie, absorbing everyone else’s nostalgia. If “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” undertook the question of erasing fond memories, “Reminiscence” wonders about the hazards of what it means to visit them again and again.

These nostalgia trips are an innovation of that other classic noir narrative device: it’s the flashback made literal. When Nick falls head over heels for the mysterious Mae before she up and vanishes, he dives headfirst into his memory and the memories of others to find her. It’s an interesting take on the dead or disappeared wife trope, usually seen smiling silently as paragons of purity and virtue in the memories of men. Nick doesn’t like what he finds when he goes looking for Mae, turning up drugs, murder and unsavory associations with gangsters.

“Reminiscence” is a rumination on living in the past, filtered through the detective genre in a fresh and innovative way, making a mystery out of memory. It’s also a big, earnest romance that’s sometimes a bit too in love with the sound of its own voice, often bogged down by endless pontificating on the nature of storytelling. Watts offers a bit of sour sarcasm to temper some of the sweet sentimentality, her cynicism cutting through the syrupy romance like acid whenever Nick’s been hitting the tank too hard.

The modern noir style and genre innovation are such a neat cinematic twist that it’s a bit of a letdown that the world doesn’t always feel fully fleshed out. One of the juiciest villains, St. Joe (Daniel Wu), has the best backstory, but his screen time is jettisoned for a cartoonishly sketched New Orleans cop played by Cliff Curtis, who is a fantastic actor saddled with a character that’s too two-dimensional to care about.

Like “Westworld,” “Reminiscence” is a daring and futuristic sci-fi story based in a familiar genre and driven by familiar human emotions: love, loss, betrayal, regret. The dystopian elements are also all too real, from climate change to class warfare to border wars to internment camps. Joy is merely relaying the writing on the wall, looking at our own history, diving into our own collective memories, to imagine our future. It’s a larger reminder that sometimes looking back is worth the effort.

‘REMINISCENCE’

2.5 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for strong violence, drug material throughout, sexual content and some strong language)

Running time: 1:56