You don’t have to look hard to see the shadows looming over Lisa Joy’s Reminiscence. The film is essentially a re-working of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, with futuristic elements overlaying the noirish story. What Joy does with the tale is clever, but it never surpasses the original.
Joy is better known as a screenwriter, notably for the TV series Westworld (where she was also the showrunner). Reminiscence is her first taste of feature film directing, and she does a good job. While sometimes the (necessary) CGI threatens to overwhelm the narrative, but Joy generally keeps a tight rein on things. The third act however has some problems, and Joy struggles to bring the many narrative threads together.
In a future Miami, the sea has risen to inundate much of the city. The waves sparked a human calamity, leading to war. Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) and Watts (Thandwie Newton) are veterans of the conflict. Now they run a high-tech studio just above the waterlogged streets offering memory retrieval services. They can help with everything from remembering a lost loved one to, well, finding your lost keys. A set of such errant keys brings Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) to Nick’s door. The attraction is instant and mutual. Soon, Nick is smitten, and imagines a future together with Mae. But when she suddenly disappears, Nick becomes obsessed with finding her.
Nick’s equipment and skills mean he’s in demand with the Miami PD, which uses his system to extract exact memories from suspects and witnesses. The cops are investigating the murder of Elsa (Angela Sarafyan), who happens to be one of Nick’s regular clients. As Nick extracts information from a suspect in the case, it emerges that Mae might somehow be involved. That discovery takes Nick to New Orleans in search of dangerous gangster Saint Joe (Daniel Wu) and his equally deadly sidekick, a crooked cop named Cyrus Boothe (Cliff Curtis).
If you’re familiar with Chinatown, you might remember the film is set in bone-dry Los Angeles; and water was a key point in the plot. Here Joy deftly flips the scenario. Water is everywhere, but dry land is scarce. It represents wealth and power. Bannister is a slightly more empathetic version of Jake Gittoes; and Mae is as alluring a femme fatale as Evelyn Mulwray. Joy even includes a plotline about a secret child (although it’s far less icky than Polanski’s). Chinatown isn’t Joy’s only touchstone – elements from films like Vertigo crop up too. But it’s a brave decision from any filmmaker to invite comparisons with those classics.
Joy demonstrates a clear and distinctive visual style. One sequence in particular (in a sunken ballroom) stands out, but she creates many striking visuals. The CGI however occasionally felt jarring to me, particularly juxtaposed with some of Miami’s striking art deco buildings. Joy’s screenplay is a bit muddled, particularly toward the end where time shifts and a slew of minor characters add to the confusion. And unfortunately, some of the dialogue is pretty ripe. But the film carried me along with it, and I enjoyed its rather enigmatic ending.
Hugh Jackman mostly ditches his more theatrical side for the gruff Bannister. While he’s effective as the tortured investigator, there’s something not quite “grimy” enough about him. Still, you can’t fault his performance. Similarly, Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible Fallout) shimmers as Mae but her allure somehow undermines the seedier aspects of the character that emerge later. Thandwie Newton (Solo: A Star Wars Story) dives headlong into her role as the world-weary Watts, while Kiwi actor Cliff Curtis (Doctor Sleep) has a difficult role as the loathsome Boothe.
As an exercise in neo-noir, Reminiscence is a decent effort but doesn’t really offer anything very new. Its sci-fi trappings can’t hide the fact this film is about what all noir films are about – damaged people seeking the unattainable. But while it may not be great, it’s still an engaging couple of hours in the cinema.
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television