There are two types of dystopian science fiction films, roughly speaking: those that assume protagonists can fight back against whatever has warped the world and those that cynically decide there isn’t. In films like The Hunger Games, Elysium, Divergent, and Ready Player One, a big representative villain is created for a hero to battle in order to put things right. While the don’t-worry-it’s-too-late films are less rousing and thrilling, they are often more nuanced and textured, and more relatable to those of us who do not live in a world where there is not a single obvious villain.
Lisa Joy’s noir-future mystery is set in the future. Reminiscence demonstrates why. It takes place in a future where the major evils have already manifested and no one believes they can be defeated. As a result, the characters fight their own smaller, more personal battles — primarily against despair. Reminiscence may not offer much hope for a better future, but it does so on a level that feels real and familiar, no matter how fantastical the details may be.
Human-caused climate change melted the polar icecaps, sea levels rose, and a series of wars were fought to secure dwindling resources and valuable dry land in Reminiscence. The setting is a flooded future Miami, where giant walls keep the sea at bay in some neighbourhoods, while other areas have been transformed into Venice, with canals replacing streets and boat traffic replacing automobiles. Miami has also gone completely nocturnal due to the oppressive daytime temperatures.
However, there is no indication that anyone is attempting to resolve the issue. Floods, wars, and heat are not just the calculated backdrop for Reminiscence’s actual storey; they have long been accepted as the backdrop for an entire culture of drained and powerless characters. The effects of the changes on the city can be seen in almost every shot, but no one says anything about it aside from Hugh Jackman’s dreary voiceover slathering on exposition. It is all what they have come to expect from the messed-up future they have found themselves in. It is no surprise that nostalgia and clinging to lost comforts are central themes in the film.
Nick Bannister, the proprietor of a small shop that offers clients full-immersion flashbacks to their own pasts, is played by Hugh Jackman. Nick and his old military partner Watts (Westworld’s Thandiwe Newton) used drugs, an immersion tank, and an electrical brain-induction rig to allow people to fully re-experience their own memories, complete with you-are-there sensation. Anyone present can see those memories in stylish 3D glory thanks to a stage-like visualizer. Why does it matter if other people in the room can see those memories? The visualizer appears to be beside the point at first. If the technology is just designed to allow clients to relive their pasts, why does it matter if other people in the room can see those memories as well?
Joy, on the other hand, brings to Reminiscence the same thoughtful exploration of technology that she brought to Westworld as a writer, producer, and showrunner. The new technology may appear flashy and cinematic, but it has a far-reaching social impact: it is used as a deposition tool in courts to help determine the truth of a situation, as well as an interrogation tool for cops to elicit memories from criminals. And in those cases, the memories matter more to the institutional witnesses who are watching them unfold in real time than they do to the drugged and immobilised subjects who are offering them up.
But that is all background information. The visualizer’s true purpose in Reminiscence is to allow Nick to fully immerse himself in his past, as he becomes lost in the mysteries of his memories. One night, while he and Watts are seeing their usual clientele, Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) walks in and asks for help remembering where she left her keys. She and Nick quickly become lovers, until she mysteriously vanishes. Nick begins obsessively reliving his own memories, looking for clues, convinced that something terrible has happened to Mae. Gradually, he gets hints that she was not who she claimed to be, and he is drawn into a criminal conspiracy, with Watts following him reluctantly.
Watts is clearly at least somewhat in love with Nick, but she’s also ruthlessly practical, and clear-eyed about his gormless obsession with a two-faced woman who appears to have moved on. That three-way dynamic, and the film’s focus on music, performance, the tech-assisted reliving of memories, and a rising social unrest all heavily recall Kathryn Bigelow’s gloriously messy, criminally unavailable 1995 science fiction movie Strange Days. Even the specific racial dynamic of the casting seems deliberate — Newton’s role in this film corresponds to Angela Bassett’s in Strange Days, and they’re similarly conceived as hard-eyed, self-contained warrior-women who are fully aware they’re half in love with sentimental chumps, and are more than a little angry about it. (As audiences may be — the specter of yet another competent, badass woman of color trailing around after a drippy, self-absorbed white dude who barely notices her is Reminiscence’s worst echo of what was already a painful dynamic.)
While Reminiscence often feels like a nostalgic echo of Bigelow’s film, it leans even more heavily into the classic noir-movie dynamic than Strange Days, as Nick attempts to piece together Mae’s past. She is a traditional femme fatale in some ways, a beautiful mystery who enters the hero-life, patsy’s upends it, and then returns to her problems, tempting him to follow her and fix them. But there is more to her than the stereotypes. Ferguson manages to keep her alluring and enigmatic, which helps to sell the mystery. Meanwhile, Jackman transforms Nick into an open book, yearning for the one good thing he had in his squalid recent life and unable to believe it was a lie.
Individual viewers will undoubtedly bring their own emotional biases to bear on Nick’s interpretation, and this will heavily influence whether they see him as a romantic hero pursuing true love at all costs, or as an annoying stalker who constantly puts himself and others in danger by refusing to let go of his irrational obsessions. He is a little of both, but it is a funny irony that a film about relived memories will play out differently for different audiences, depending on their own memories of past relationships. As always, Jackman is a charismatic performer, but the script makes him repetitive, clueless, simplistic, and borderline abusive, making him and his quest unappealing. However, because films almost always reward this kind of tenacious pursuit of an ostensibly unwilling woman, viewers’ memories of previous rom-coms or noir films may also play a role in setting their expectations.
Reminiscence is a solid noir mystery, with a series of twists and turns, as well as a genre-friendly helping of double-crossings and double-dealings, slimy mobsters, and rich monsters. It mostly fails because of its character dynamics, particularly for those who are not smitten by Nick’s monomania. Nick’s sappy voiceover not only steers the audience toward maudlin self-pity, but it also over-explains things that should be left vague and open to interpretation, and it keeps viewers from quietly soaking in the film’s elaborate dystopian spectacle. It is an obnoxious, intrusive annoyance, constantly attempting to direct the audience and tell them what to think or feel. Joy is the symbol of happiness.
Throughout Reminiscence, it appears as if Joy does not trust the audience to follow the storey unless everything is explained, re-explained, and symbolically re-communicated, and allowed to play out in flashback. The plot is not that complicated, and the hand-holding slows down the action in an already slow-moving, depressing storey.
And, as she did with Westworld, Joy gets painfully clever with Reminiscences timelines, manipulating the audience’s perceptions with her invented technology. While there is a lot of deception and contrivance in a plot that is more concerned with the mechanisms than the characters, the world’s flashback machines end up feeling like a natural tool for telling a storey like this. They provide Nick with a window into other people’s perspectives on Mae, and as the truth emerges, Joy has the opportunity to show viewers exactly how events transpired by waltzing them back in time.
That is another subtle irony in a film that explicitly depicts a terrible, and at times seemingly inevitable future. However, reminiscence is rarely about anticipating the future. It is a bleak, determined warning about where we might be headed, not just in the grand scheme of things, but on a personal level, toward a world where the only comforts we have are our memories of what we once had. It is depressing in more ways than one, given its cynical view of what makes life worth living and what we must do to keep it that way. But it is also refreshing to see science fiction so aware of how quickly we are heading toward a terrible future, and how our response will almost certainly be specific, personal, and just as selfish as the behaviour that got us there in the first place.