Film: Reminiscence

About twenty-five years ago I wrote a story titled “The Nostalgia Jones” about a man who gets addicted to immersive memory technology. The story was garbage, but it does perhaps explain why my initial reaction to Reminiscence (2021) was “Man, this movie would have been awesome if it had come out twenty-five years ago!” Unfortunately, for something with so many state-of-the-art visual effects at its disposal, it sure feels old-fangled.

Set in a future Miami wracked rather cinematically by climate change, Reminiscence charts the dystopian noir exploits of a former military officer named Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman). During the war, Nick used immersive memory technology as an interrogation tool to pry secrets out of enemy combatants. Now, he and his old war buddy Watts (Thandiwe Newton) peddle memory excursions to nostalgia junkies, using an elaborate immersion tank set up in an old bank. Nick’s day-to-day life takes a turn when a beautiful woman named Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) turns up at the shop for a session. The meeting leads to romance—until Mae disappears without a word. Later, a memory-sighting of Mae, made during a side gig mining memories for a court case, triggers a new investigation to into her fate, which entangles Nick in a criminal conspiracy across the Gulf Coast, and leaves him questioning his previous feelings.

Reminiscence has the bones of a decent SF noir, and the film looks magnificent, particularly in its wide shots of a drowned, sea-walled Miami. Unfortunately, the science fictional subtexts aren’t nearly as sophisticated as the production values. The idea that people in a dreary future might seek escapism in the past makes sense, but the film doesn’t treat the notion with much depth or inventiveness. Nick’s customers revisit extremely conventional memories that have nothing to do with the futuristic misery that supposedly drives them to it—not that their present miseries are really shown or felt. Writer-director Lisa Joy’s drowned coastal metropolis is far too stylish and functional, a disaster-chic fantasyland (and probably with better public transportation than contemporary Florida). Considering it’s a story about people addicted to the past, perhaps it’s appropriate Reminiscence feels backwards-looking and old-fashioned. But Jackman’s first-person narration and the noir trappings feel about seventy years removed from modern storytelling conventions, which not only makes everything feel shopworn, but contributes to a deeply unsatisfying science fictional vibe. Nobody, with the exception of Newton, comes off well here—not even the usually reliable Jackman and Ferguson, saddled with thin characters and overly melodramatic dialogue. The overall result is a shiny, distancing film that tries to be about its people and its ideas, and the past and the future, but only manages to fall boringly in the middle of it all.

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