Hugh Jackman chases down the ghost of Rebecca Ferguson through futuristic memory tech in Lisa Joy’s ponderous, limp tech-noir pastiche.
It’s not just that Joy fails to follow through on the noir tropes she so clearly wants to pay homage to while attempting to subvert, or a cast that features Thandiwe Newton and Hugh Jackman as jaded private gumshoes in a dystopian Miami, not to mention the near-perfect timing of this movie’s release. Noirs didn’t just come into their own in the years around WWII: some of the best examples of the genre came in the wreckage after, as people still flailing in the trauma of the Great Depression and genocide wondered what the hell was next in a new era of peace and prosperity that some found just as terrifying as what preceded it.
So the neo-noir Reminiscence is absurdly well-positioned to explore what we owe each other in a country exhausted from a pandemic and a war we’ve recently decided is enough after twenty years of blood, sweat, and tears with seemingly little to show for it. A twisted sense of fortune to be sure, but such a grotesque sense of timing has served other media such as The Handmaid’s Tale, which has displayed an uncanny ability to reflect our times despite its ever declining relevance.
Given how many versions of our future border on apocalyptic even in the best-case scenario, it’s little wonder why nostalgia is always trending. In Reminiscence, however, it’s a drug. Or more accurately, the latest opiate for the masses in another grim near distant future, where the ever-rising waters swamping Miami have been actively aided by a wealthy class that bought up all the dry land and built dams around it. Yes, the rich are literally drowning everyone else, as the movie takes pains to point out. Throw in a series of recent, devastating wars that have also left many grappling with a sense of nihilism, and it’s a good time for veterans Nick (Jackman) and Watts (Newton) to offer their customers the chance to relive their memories.
But the end effect of the time capsules created isn’t an intimate journey of times past; it’s VR everyone in the room can see, nicely eliminating the use of any sexuality that could potentially be upsetting. You’d think people would also want to escape the world slowly sinking around them, but once they’re strapped into a watery cocoon, there’s a sense of golden fluidity to the memories, of waters slowly coalescing to bring a brighter yesterday to vivid life in a kind of firmly respectable exhibitionism.
Jackman avoids similarly drowning himself until Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) walks in, who is destined to become his drug of choice. From the flimsy excuse for her visit to the clinging red dress she quickly discards, she all but screams classic femme fatale, and it’s a wonder Nick doesn’t catch on. Then again, why would he? Mae clearly knows her mark, and he’s not really different from other men. She expertly dangles the bait and makes herself into an approachable beauty with just enough mystery to lure Nick in, then keep his attention as a composite of appealing traits designed to please.
Then shocker of shockers, Mae suddenly disappears, and Nick is left bereft and determined to track down his shady dame with a mysterious past. But Mae becomes more of a cipher, not less, with Nick’s journey into the underbelly of his already seedy world becoming more shallow as he wades further in, sometimes literally. And it does not bode well for Mae.
Reminiscence takes its ridiculously convoluted means to ludicrous ends.
How could it? The Production Code of classic Hollywood may be long gone, but the desire to punish female transgressions remains strong. And in a story so concerned with the suffering of its male protagonist at the expense of all else, no woman who breaks as many rules as Mae does makes it to the end, not when Joy takes every opportunity to artfully frame Jackman’s face during every large and small agony he suffers.
Reminiscence does take a very abrupt turn in a misguided attempt to give Mae the only form of humanity the movie is capable of recognizing in her, but the emphasis is always Nick and his desperate need to be validated by the woman he idolized. And such validation demands that this devotion be returned, which is especially necessary when the reality will never match the image he created and enshrines.
Joy is equally out of her depth bringing the city of Miami to life, and it’s where her status as an East Coast native is glaringly clear. Aside from a few shots of dry land that evoke a lush sense of Southern Gothic, this could be any shady metropolis on the verge of succumbing to climate change.
So don’t come for the distinctive sense of place found in films as wide-ranging as The Birdcage and Moonlight, because it seems our hallowed northern cities can’t be so besmirched as to suggest they’re also indicative of a vanishing way of life. Or perhaps that trademark irony and detachment might be considered a bit less worth emulating when the water is around your ankles on the street.
Instead, Reminiscence takes its ridiculously convoluted means to ludicrous ends, including Nick being ensconced away just like the wealthy class he criticizes for expecting the world to adhere to their fantasies, proving beyond any lingering doubt that white entitlement transcends class barriers. In a final racist twist of the knife, Newton is even reduced to choosing an endless form of servitude as Nick’s caretaker.
Other films have known that even something as flawed and unreliable as memory can serve as a way to speak truth to power, especially when the focus shifts to an individual or group who’ve been traditionally barred from it. Kathryn Bigelow’s flawed 1995 cyberpunk masterpiece Strange Days certainly knew this, and if Joy had given Newton a fraction of the time, attention, and respect Bigelow bestowed on Angela Bassett, there might be something salvageable in the mess Reminiscence leaves in its wake. As it is, if Joy somehow gets to make another feature after such a disastrous debut, hopefully, someone else will do the writing.
Reminiscence is currently streaming on HBO Max and playing in theaters.