A Frankenstein’s neo-noir, “Reminiscence” is a mélange of mystery and sci-fi tableaux. Written and directed by “Westworld” co-creator Lisa Joy, the film is like “Chinatown” mashed up with “Blade Runner” and a patchwork of “Minority Report,” “The Matrix,” “Strange Days,” and even “Vertigo.” If that description sounds tempting to watch, you would not be off-base. “Reminiscence” is a visual beaut, full of genre atmospherics and a first-rate cast. But for a narrative steeped in memories, the story proves as forgettable as it is derivative.
The headliner of the film is its milieu, a postmodern rendering of Miami after the tides have risen and the temps have skyrocketed. Set in the near future, flood waters have submerged most of the region, leaving two cities in its wake. The first, called the “Sunken Coast,” resembles a dystopian Venice, where the hoi polloi have become nocturnal because it’s too hot outside during the daytime. Behind giant dam walls lies “Dry Land,” where the wealthy live lives of preserved privilege.
The setting is the residue of decades of environmental decay and a border war the story tantalizingly hints at. A veteran of the war is Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman), who is now a literal and figurative private eye. With his platonic partner Watts (Thandiwe Newton, making the absolute most out of a one-note role), he runs a business that allows people to recount and relive old memories using an aquatic sensory deprivation tank. One day in walks Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), the film’s femme fatale, who shows up at closing time because she forgot where she left her keys. The memory machine allows Bannister to both watch and record a subject’s recollections, and he quickly learns that Mae is a bewitching yet melancholy lounge singer whose shapely crimson stage gown makes Nick go gaga. Nick tracks down Mae to return earrings she left behind (that old trick), and they embark on a whirlwind romance that ends abruptly when Mae vanishes without a trace.
The overwhelming authenticity of “Reminiscence” is grounded in the notion that the hardboiled Nick would fall head-over-heels for Mae at first and only sight, then literally uproot his life, his career, and his relationship with Watts in order to track Mae down and find out why she ghosted him. That sort of plot turn happens in films of this genre, but only after a genuine effort at relationship and romance building. In the context of the film’s chronological hopscotching, Nick just comes off as rather stalkerish, and his obsession is not only dubiously believable but the entire premise of the film is grounded in it. Consequently, it is a fatal flaw that undercuts the rest of the film, no matter its other nominal merits.
Nick’s single-minded search leads him to an Asian drug kingpin named Saint Joe (Daniel Wu), the family of a wealthy area land baron, the private life of a former client, and a crooked cop. There’s infidelity, corruption, and murder, all held together by the thinnest sinew of contrivances and coincidences, none of it developed to its necessary extent.
“The past can haunt a man,” growls Nick the narrator at one point, an example of the nondescript script at play here. “Reminiscence” holds your attention, from its visual palette to its world-building, performances, and the expectation of a plot payoff by film’s end. Alas, the real reminiscence becomes of previous and better movies of this sort.
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