Reminiscence, as it happens, is heavily reminiscent of other films and stories*. This isn’t an accident, it isn’t like the criminally unfunny 2008 spoof film Disaster Movie, the title of which ended up being fitting in ways the makers hadn’t intended. The people behind Reminiscence know it is going to make you think back to other movies but I couldn’t help but get a sense that they weren’t owning this as much as they could.
Reminiscence writer/director Lisa Joy, along with husband Jonathan Nolan, is the co-creator of HBO’s Westworld. In that show they brings back elements of the past – the Wild West, Shogun Japan, British Raj, WWII – in a futuristic sci-fi setting and, to some extent, Joy is doing the same thing here. The time and place in Reminiscence is a near future Miami but the set up is very much 1940s PI and classic film noir. The difference is that in Westworld they are very conscious of this, as are the characters. The historical settings are established as fantasy in the narrative. In Reminiscence though we are asked to accept outdated conceits in an advanced reality and it doesn’t feel realistic. The opposing elements are fighting against one another and it jars.
Gerry Anderson’s bizarre 1980s TV show Dick Spanner did something similar but with it’s cartoony robot detective they were not playing it straight. This film is asking us to take everything very seriously and with the corny tropes of the gumshoe genre; the husky narrative voice over, the femme fatale, the shady gangsters and the crooked cops, all present and correct it is hard to do so. Unlike in the similarly constructed Blade Runner, Joy has just leant into her duel ideas a little too heavily and unfortunately as a result the thing isn’t really standing straight anymore.
The film is full of reunions too which also makes you think of other movies and shows. You’ve got Thandiwe Newton and Angelina Sarafyan joining Joy from Westworld. Hugh Jackman is working again with Jonathan Nolan, who produces, after they first collaborated on The Prestige which Nolan wrote with brother Christopher, and Jackman is also teamed once more with The Greatest Showman co-star Rebecca Ferguson. That last one in particular adds to the distraction.
I have to say though that as it progresses, and you get used to the casting and the quirks, you do get involved in the story. It never escapes cliche but as Jackman, who is a private investigator of the mind (he has machine that brings back and projects people’s memories), searches for the woman he loves, secrets are unearthed, trusts are broken, criminals are engaged and the truth emerges. As the story meticulously builds to its conclusion it does become quite compelling. Joy remains a great storyteller even if she slightly mishandles other aspects.
There are things to read in the movie as well. There is a strong water motif as the streets are all at least partially submerged following global warming and the memory tank similarly surrounds participants in water during the recall procedure. Here water is set to slowly deny everyone a future as well as providing the catalyst to their past. These are people who have turned on their planet and are now completely a slave to nature and the main commodities of the Earth. (You could look at it as a prequel to Waterworld if you wanted.)
In the end I was perfectly distracted by Reminiscence. Ironically its not going to live long in the memory and I am sure it will only be a footnote in the impressive career that Lisa Joy will no doubt have, but it is good to see sci-fi that isn’t part of some huge franchise up on the big screen.
The Ripley Factor:
Thandiwe Newton is so good in Westworld that here she does feel a little wasted. At first she is a fairly passive, if rounded, supporting player but does later get her moments of action. She, like Jackman’s Nick Bannister, fought in a recent global war and when you get to see this side of her come back it is worth the wait. (The two of them built their professional friendship fighting alongside one another in the war and have a resulting bond few others can appreciate as a result. This is reminiscent of Firefly, if you’ve seen it.)
The female lead is Ferguson’s Mae though and she ticks every femme fatale box in the prescribed order. She has her moments of strength and fortitude but there are no old fashioned cinematic conventions being challenged here.
*Here is the full list of films that Reminisce quickly reminded me of: The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Chinatown, Blade Runner, Serenity, Dark City, Momento, Inception (keep it in the family), Strange Days, Terminal, The Matrix.