There’s an interesting line in writer/director Lisa Joy’s Reminiscence, which suggests that our past doesn’t haunt us. It’s gone. We, however, through our memories, haunt it by revisiting moments in our mind over and over. There’s psychological proof of this in the way that smells, tastes, sounds, and actions can trigger memories to the point that we feel like we’ve returned to a different place and time. The trick is to revisit the moments without the emotion so that we can remember without the euphoria of joy or the depression of sadness. In her film, Joy says that returning to our memories is not only easy, it’s basically magic, giving us an opportunity to revisit any moment in hi-fidelity. There is risk, though, as the allure of remaining in the past is intoxicating psychologically and staying too long in our memories can damage us physically. Adding in some intrigue and murder, Joy’s neo-noir Reminiscence places our dangerous relationship with memory front and center; it makes the memories clues through which a classic detective story must sift with the answers going places one might not wish to go.
In a distant future, days are too sweltering for humans, pushing them to lead mostly nocturnal lives, and waters have risen to the point of flooding the coastline. When the floods began, people fled their homes inland. The ensuing competition for dry land resulting in a war that lasted more than a thousand days. People were put in internment camps, which further split things between those who can live on drier land and those who live among the water. In Miami, Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) now uses an advanced version of holographic tech he managed as a military interrogator to help people revisit lost or treasured memories, enabling them to live in them once more while cautioning them of the potential danger of losing touch with reality if explored too often. Sometimes he, alongside his assistant/partner Emily “Watts” Sanders (Thandiwe Newton) work with the police when deposing suspects or defendants in cases. Usually, these two worlds of practice are separated, but when a woman he loves, Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), goes missing suddenly, Nick dives into the one place he knows he can find answers: memories.
As there was no press screening in my area (and I’m currently sticking to press screenings for reduced risk), I saw the initial reactions to Reminiscence pop up from fellow critics and, frankly, I don’t get it. Panned by pretty much everyone, Reminiscence didn’t make much of a mark and is accused of not living up to its promise. I can’t help but wonder how much of this reaction is buried in expectation, much like the critical rejection of director Chloé Zhao’s Eternals (a film which is far less of a traditional superhero tale and getting dinged for it). Joy is a producer/writer for the critically acclaimed HBO program Westworld and even directed an episode. You bring that background and a cast that includes Jackman, Newton, Ferguson, Cliff Curtis (Doctor Sleep), Angela Sarafyan (King Knight), and others to a sci-fi noir, expectations are going to be astronomical. In my case, I watched the trailer once and promptly forgot it, mostly because, with no press screening, there was no reason to place my energy into it. What I did grasp on to and want to learn more about was Joy’s technical approach in creating the presentation of the memory tech (which we’ll get into more). With only this, I went into Reminiscence freed from pre-conclusions and ready to explore. Is the film perfect? No. However, it’s full of new ideas presented confidently from a cast perfectly suited for the standard noir roles (detective, stalwart partner, femme fatale, villain), with the twist on the genre offering characters that are more than their genre cut-outs, given agency and depth.
For background, noir’s are tales with a darkness, an exploration of humanity at its weakest and with little hope present. In a detective noir, there’s a down on his luck private investigator who meets a beautiful woman for a job, forms a connection of some kind, and then finds himself in over his head because of her. Given the overall tone, these films usually take place at night and with a high level of criminality. Joy’s twist begins by making our night the day and vice versa due to the shift in climate. This means that the ordinary, the average acts of man, take place when the sun goes down, each frame glowing with the neon of lights in Miami, specifically from the new Sunken Coast district where he resides, offering a playland-like feel. That said, a great deal more takes place during the day, which often feels more like a dream — beautiful, strange, and unburdened by reality — especially in the first portion of the film. The further Nick goes into the mystery, the more the day portions (night in this reality) maintain their beauty but possess an unnaturalness as so few people are present. With a film centered on the exploration of memory and how what we remember has to do with what we focus on, that we see so little beyond what Nick does and where Nick goes, especially during the “night” sequences, brings an isolated feeling despite the warm glow of the sun. It’s easy to cast off the active hours shift as nothing more than flourish, but its emblematic of Joy’s view of how to examine truths: in the light. You can’t see what’s going on clearly in the dark, just as you can’t see beyond your own perspective, blinded by your expectations. This is exemplified in this case by Nick being consumed by the mystery of what happened to Mae, which he’s then forced to examine in the light of day (which is their darkness, in keeping with the noir tropes). It’s from here that Reminiscence gets really interesting because Nick’s journey reveals the complexity of all the characters outside of how we first meet them: Nick — a good man, former soldier, has a moral code, holds on to the past so that the stories he’s learned don’t disappear — bends and breaks it all in pursuit of the truth; Watts — loyal, an alcoholic — avoids the past and focuses on the future; Mae — beautiful, loving — appears at first to be an open book who ultimately is nothing like and exactly like what she seems and so much more. In Reminiscence, everyone is shown to be more than their character outline and are offered humanity that makes their individual stories tragic (from a certain point of view) and moving (from an audience perspective). Is some of it melodramatic? Yes, but no more so than Blade Runner (1982), one of the greatest sci-fi neo-noirs in cinema history. That Joy’s script goes out of its way (quite naturally within the scope of the rules within) to explore the various shades of humanity within each character makes the film far more about characters than the genre itself, something I found quite inspired.
Something else Joy takes advantage of is the tech within the tale to alter perception of how the story is told, making use of it to either trick the audience or to have characters across time engage with each other. The tech is simple in explanation: an individual wears a head piece, lays in a small open tank of water, and is guided to a memory via vocal lullaby by Nick. That memory is then projected in his office for him to explore and record. Each memory is constructed only of what the person focused on, so there’s no detail beyond the memory itself. When shown to us within the film, the memories look like holograms, when we’re not placed inside them directly. Because we are shown the memories as though happening in real-time, Joy occasionally uses that as a means of moving us forward, making us think we’re watching new events when, in fact, they’re just a memory. Once it happens the first time, the audience is primed not to trust what we see, a critical component for what follows as not everything is as it appears and taking things at face value is a dead man’s game. Later, when memory is used to connect disparate moments in time, it can be seen as emotional manipulation by the writer when it is, in fact, an example of just how smart the characters themselves are to be able to recognize the immortality of memory in this era. Underneath that, it also allows for an opportunity to show how what each of our characters longs for, down deep, is a connection with someone else, that the pain of not having one is what drives them to do dastardly things.
The tech used to present and record the memories is one of my favorite things about the film. This is explored somewhat in the included featurette “Craft a Memory.” What we see as holograms are actually projected images, like in an art installation, which allow the actors, most specifically Jackman, the ability to have something to interact with in the scenes and, on the technical side, offer a more accurate eye-line. The image is then recorded during the scene using several mocap cameras so that, when captured on camera, it possesses a hologram-like look, moving in concert with the movement of the cameras in a natural, fluid manner. It’s a beautiful merging of practical and technical approaches that makes each of these memory scenes less fantastical and more concrete. The other featurettes included vary in regard to insight. The first one, “You’re Going on a Journey,” is more of a highlight reel of the film with a few comments from cast and crew, whereas the other three — “The Sunken Coast,” “Craft a Memory,” and “Reminiscence: A Family Reunion” — dig more deeply into the technical aspects of creating the Miami of the future, costuming concepts, how to achieve the thematic goals within, and the connection between cast and Joy herself. Those who are fans of Westworld will particularly enjoy hearing Newton and Sarafyan’s perspectives. My one regret with these featurettes is that they are broad in theme individually, so they include a lot of cross-information. Streamlining them into their own, even shorter featurettes, would make the information a tad more digestible and far more distinct.
Though I can understand why this film wouldn’t connect with everyone, I struggle not to be impressed with the approach of the narrative. It certainly helps that the cast are an incredibly talented bunch, capable of handling the twists, turns, and shifts in character the narrative requires. The score from Ramin Djawadi (Eternals) is propulsive from the jump, giving the film a sort of sad rock ’n’ roll feel, offering tones that come across as ethereal in the solemn moments and explosive when Nick is on the move. Even weaving in issues of their climate crisis and wealth disparity feel like a bend in time as our current real-world issues of the same matters continue to grow in dangerous frustration. There’re layers upon layers in Reminiscence which imply incredible thought and planning on Joy’s part, most of which come together in a solid and satisfying way. If it didn’t find its audience in the theater, maybe, in time, it will on home video.
Reminiscence 4K UHD and Blu-ray Special Features:
- You’re Going on a Journey (3:57)
- The Sunken Coast (6:56)
- Crafting a Memory (8:15)
- Reminiscence: A Family Reunion (8:04)
- “Save My Love” Music Video (4:40)
Reminiscence DVD Special Features:
- Crafting a Memory (8:15)
Available on digital October 1st, 2021.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD November 9th, 2021.
**Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray for review.
The opinions I share are my own.**
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.