I get the feeling most people aren’t going to like Reminiscence. It’s kinda all over the place tonally, and certain things happen that strain credulity even in a largely fantastical world, but something about it just worked for me. I am proud to say that I loved it. Is it the preponderance of plot? The excess of imagination? The hardcore knock-down-drag-out fistfight between Hugh Jackman and Cliff Curtis? Is it the fact that it stars many of the most gorgeous people who ever lived?
But the main draw for me is that it’s a completely original film which, short of genre convention (it’s a noir), isn’t interested in being a riff on anything else. To all of those who lament that there’s nothing new under the sun: here you go. It ain’t perfect, but it’s pretty damn unique. And if you’re interested in supporting underserved voices in film, note that it’s written and directed by a woman (Lisa Joy). In a cultural climate where we trip over ourselves to condemn anything that isn’t “the kind of film I like to see” we often forget the other half of the equation: supporting the things we do like to see.
The story begins sometime in the future, a few years after a global war that has left humanity rattled. The divide between the haves and have-nots is wider than ever, and an advanced climate crisis has put much of Miami underwater. Most everybody lives at street level (well, at water level), while the rich live in walled-off, elevated estates. In a bleak world with bleaker prospects, designer drug addiction has taken hold of much of the population, and for the rest, the intoxicant of choice is nostalgia. No, it’s not a culture of Stranger Things fanatics, but one that has embraced a technology that gives users the ability to be led on a guided tour through their own memories.
Our protagonist, Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) operates a memory tourism establishment with his best friend Watts (Thandiwe Newton). They’re an independent outfit, steadily losing business to their corporate competitors, and they can’t help but to give freebies to clients who use their services for therapy. Gaps in clientele are filled by law enforcement, who use the machine to draw incriminating evidence out of the minds of suspects (one truly impressive thing about the film is that it explores the full breadth of what could be done with such tech). Since this is a noir film, a femme fatale (played to sultry perfection by Rebecca Ferguson) walks into Nick’s office and shakes up his whole life. She wants to use the machine to find her misplaced keys, but we all know there’s more to her story. And there is. But I don’t have the time nor space to get you there. Its a lot (but not too much).
This is an incredibly high concept to lay on a viewer, but I found it to be much less baldly expositional than anyone would reasonably expect. The world of Reminiscence is very thoroughly designed and it feels remarkably lived-in. So much so that when a goofy plot beat occasionally rolls through, usually in the form of a wildly intense action sequence, there’s at least enough information to support its occurrence, even if it’s tonally jarring. The concept of literally diving into one’s memories is explored very heavily in a plot sense, but ends up being quite thematically resonant as well. Nowadays, the term “nostalgia” conjures a fondness for pop cultural items from our collective youth, but in the world of Reminiscence the term applies much more to one’s personal history — there’s no commentary here regarding the current nostalgia market, just about why looking backwards can be such an attractive thing.
Writer/director Lisa Joy has an incredible imagination. While I’m not over the moon for Westworld, a show she runs, and which often crumbles under its own conceptual weight, there’s no denying the talent behind it. With Reminiscence, the contained nature of a film vs. that of an open ended series keeps what could easily be an unwieldy narrative in check, without putting any limitations on a unique and colorful world.
Being a relatively modestly budgeted affair, it’s a testament to Joy’s talent as a director (it’s her feature debut) that the film looks as slick as it does. There are a few moments where the digital skyline is pretty clearly CGI, but it doesn’t clash with the tangible elements. In fact, the in-lens set pieces and post-production imagery often complement one another. This is a heightened world, so the visuals have license to look as painterly as they do. On a micro basis, Joy shoots everything with a clarity and sense of geography that I found exciting. I always knew where to look, and there’s plenty of space for the cast to really explore each location as they perform.
And do I really need to say anything about the performances of Hugh Jackman, Thandiwe Newton, or Rebecca Ferguson? You know they kill it. There’s no other option. What I will say is that Cliff Curtis needs to be a leading man. He’s always so good, but he’s always on the sidelines. He’s great here. Really great. I want more. Gimme that Cliff, baby.
Look, Reminiscence is weird. It’s whole lot of movie, and I can see why many would check out of it pretty quickly, or even rub against it for being so atypical, but I thought it worked like gangbusters. I can’t help but cheer on a high concept, original film that knows exactly what it is. I want there to be more mid-budget movies for grown ups that aren’t studio tentpoles. If they’re half as enjoyable and ambitious as Reminiscence, they’ll be worth checking out.
Written by Lisa Joy
Directed by Lisa Joy
Starring Hugh Jackman, Thandiwe Newton, Rebecca Ferguson, Cliff Curtis
Rated PG-13, 116 minutes.