In the near future, Nick (Hugh Jackman) is a veteran of the Border War, a conflict spawned by rising sea levels that are slowly overtaking major coastal cities. He lives in a half-submerged Miami, where daytime heat has become so unbearable that most people live and work by night. The waterlogged streets are filled with the poor and destitute doing their best to survive soggy, short lives. Land Barons live in luxury on private islands, but there is no hope that the scales of economic justice will ever balance. Slowly and surely, everyone sinks. It’s just a matter of how quickly and in what fashion.
Within this miserable life, Nick and his fellow veteran Emily (Thandie Newton) operate one of the few measures of solace for many — a machine that, combined with an anesthetic, allows a person to retreat into memory. Nick guides his clients through memories and can watch those memories projected on a large platform in his office. Some of his clients simply want to visit lost family or lovers; others ask for help on minor things, like where they lost a set of keys. The technology was developed during the war as an interrogation method. On occasion, Nick and Emily assist Miami Law Enforcement in investigations. Nick is referred to at large as the man who remembers everyone else’s memories.
Reminiscence is their art, their product. For some, to live in the past is addicting. Nick is the best artist, and the best dealer, in town … until a woman named Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) appears one night. They fall in love. She disappears. Suddenly Nick is caught between the desire to disappear forever into his memories of her or move forward and find out where she went.
“Between memory and oblivion,” he tells someone, “I know which one I’d choose.”
Reminiscence is a high-concept neo-noir that has a going for it: Jackman as a downbeat protagonist searching for a lost love across time (not quite The Fountain, but there’s a similar emotional gravitas to his performance), a gumshoe mystery element dealing with inequality; a cool dystopian setting; a stellar cast that also includes Cliff Curtis; and an intricately designed sci-fi technology at the center of it all. Lisa Joy, who wrote and directed Reminiscence, is best known for her work on the HBO series Westworld, a similarly twisty tale of humanity lost amid technology.
Unfortunately, Reminiscence falters due to an over-written script and frustrating narrative. Joy wrote the hell out of this story and directs it well, but all the exciting aspects about it never gel into something great.
Jackman narrates the movie in what might be the worst science-fiction voiceover since Harrison Ford’s turn for the theatrical Blade Runner, which remains infamous nearly 40 years later. Compared to that, Jackman seems engaged, but the entire story is accompanied by him spouting repetitive notions about the nature of memory. All of it is purple prose. Take, for instance, “I try to forget, but even without the tank, she haunts me” or “The past is just a series of moments — perfect, complete, a bead on the necklace of time.” These are fun lines, and Jackman reads them well, but they’re basically just describing what his performance already tells us.
“She was an idea in a tight dress, an absence you wanted to pour all your broken pieces into.” The first half of this line is great. The second, less so. It’s Reminiscence in a nutshell — taking everything just one step too far, from just enough to too much.
Like Inception, the gold standard for big-budget 2010s science-fiction, Reminiscence tells a layered story about a man searching for his lost love. Both spend as much time as they can setting up the rules of their technology and then telling a layered story that plays with time and perception. Reminiscence, though, has only one trick to pull — that whatever sequence is happening is actually Nick in the tank, remembering — and uses it too liberally, even if a man carrying out an investigation by analyzing his own memories is a neat idea on paper. The mystery surrounding Mae isn’t particularly interesting and the resolution is disappointing. The script explicitly references Orpheus and Eurydice, which seems to be a popular story model over the past few years, and also spells out precisely where all this is going.
There are moments where Reminiscence works, particularly when Joy keeps the voiceover to a minimum and allows Jackman to act the hell out of a man who wants desperately to live anywhere but now. She’s crafted a unique dystopia for her characters to play in, and several of the fight sequences use that to their advantage. Despite the clear green-screen compositing on most of the environments, it’s still a pretty cool time and place for a basic detective story. Reminiscence has everything it needs to be a cool cult science-fiction hit but gets in its own way far too frequently. For a movie so concerned with memory, it’s simply unmemorable.