Sometimes a film seems to have ALL the right ingredients, great cast, intriguing premise, big production budget and a filmmaker with bonafide cred (albeit in big-budget TV series), but even all that doesn’t guarantee a film’s quality.
Lisa Joy, one of the creators of Westworld, has fused multiple genres before with the hit HBO show she co-created with her husband Jonathan Nolan (who served as one of the producers here). Instead of a sci-fi western, Reminiscence is a sci-fi noir romance set in the near future where climate change has caused sea level to rise. The film is set in Miami, where the protagonist Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) lives is in a constant state of flood and the extreme heat has made most people to become nocturnal. The opening sequence is quite a visual feast, shot by Paul Cameron (who also worked on Westworld) though something about the narration (by Hugh Jackman, doing his best American accent) feels a tad melodramatic.
Nothing is more addictive than the past, Nick says… but then again, he and his business partner Emily Sanders who goes by ‘Watts’ (Thandiwe Newton) are in the business of reliving people’s memories via a certain memory-machine and voice prompts. It’s a pretty immersive procedure (literally), as the client has to be immersed in water in a tank, wearing a wired helmet. Business hasn’t been doing well for them actually, partly as Nick often gives pro-bono work to his war-vet friends.
One fateful day, a beautiful woman named Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) turns up at their shop asking for help finding her missing keys. It’s closing time but Nick was immediately smitten by her, so despite Watts’ reluctance, in she goes into the machine. As the subject relive their memory, the visuals of that memory is projected as a 3D hologram and visible to everyone operating the machine. Nick is suddenly obsessed with Mae’s memory as it shows her going into a night club and sings his favorite song.
If only Nick heeded his own advice in the beginning about being careful of memories’ ‘voracious appetite’ as it could consume you if you’re not careful. Well that’s exactly what happened to him and the two embarks on a whirlwind romance, much to the chagrin of Watts. As it turns out, Nick has been reliving his romantic memory with Mae this whole time, as Mae has disappeared suddenly months ago and he still hasn’t been able to find her. Nick’s search for Mae ends up overlapping with a Miami’s prosecutor’s case involving a drug lord by the name of Saint Joe (Daniel Wu) which takes Nick to New Orleans to track him down. He also encounters one of Joe’s henchman, Cyrus Boothe (Cliff Curtis) which leads to a pretty bizarre fight scene under water. By the third act, Joy still piles on one plot twist after another up until the end, which requires a great deal of patience from the viewers that I’m afraid is a bit too much to ask.
The film is less than 2-hours long but felt so much longer. I feel like perhaps the filmmaker is trying to go for slo-burn suspense, evoking the tone and vibe of some celebrated classic noirs. But it’s not a good sign when the intended slow build tension actually becomes dreary and tedious.
Joy’s talent in world building is pretty credible here however, the visuals of a dystopian world is stunning to look at, especially at night under the glare of neon lights which reminds me of Blade Runner. I especially love the way the city is reflected in water, which creates an atmospheric mood that’s perfect for noir. Besides the visuals, I really love the ensemble of actors put together here, even if they don’t all amount to perfection.
Let me start with the good… Jackman and Ferguson are so charismatic they easily light up the screen, though Newton ends up being my favorite character here who manages to hide her feelings for Nick beneath that practical, no-nonsense persona. I do appreciate that the filmmaker resists the tired love triangle trope here. The two supporting cast, Chinese-American Daniel Wu and New Zealander Cliff Curtis are two brilliant actors of color I wish would get more prominent roles in Hollywood, so I’m always happy to see them in anything. Their characters are more than just one-dimensional baddies and both have some notable moments in the film. Angela Sarafyan on the other hand, was barely given anything to do in this film.
As for the two leads, I have to say that despite Jackman’s immense talents and commitment to the role, he seems devoid of charm and wit here. Yes he’s supposed to be a melancholic, forlorn romantic but he comes across as mopey and miserable. Ferguson is suitably seductive but I find it odd that she’s gone for a long period of time about halfway through. I’ve loved Jackman and Ferguson when they teamed up in The Greatest Showman, they do have a nice chemistry together but somehow their romantic interlude doesn’t quite sizzle here as I had hoped.
But the biggest problem for me is the unwieldy plot. It’s as if I were being dragged through a long, winding, twisty road with sharp corners, with a promise of something really exciting at the end, but once I get there it’s seriously underwhelming. I mentioned the pacing issue, but that is a tough element to master in a film, so I won’t hold it too much against her as this is her feature directorial debut. I also think the story itself is immensely intriguing, apparently the spec script of Reminiscence was on the Black List in 2013. But what’s good on paper doesn’t always translate well to screen even when all the right elements are seemingly in place.
I really want this one to be good so it’s disappointing that this turns out to be a largely forgettable affair. I’m not sure it even warrants a recommendation unless you’re a huge fan of the cast. That said, I always appreciate original stories that aren’t based on an original IP, especially from a female filmmaker. I still have faith in Lisa Joy’s talent as a writer/director and I hope she continues to hone her craft to come up with something better in the future.