Imagine living in a world that is doomed. (It’s easy if you try.) The oceans are rising. Wars rage without end. Ruthless real estate barons make fortunes while pitching the have-nots deeper into poverty. Police corruption is so widespread that prosecutors only eye-roll at the idea of pressing charges. In such a world, you might crave returning to a time before you knew such pain and hopelessness. This is the world of Reminiscence, where the lost and lonely can wander back full-bodied into their memories thanks to a mind-altering machine. But looking back can be dangerous, as the movie’s haggard anti-hero discovers the hard way.
Written and directed by Westworld co-creator Lisa Joy, Reminiscence is a neo-noir wrapped in an alluring sci-fi setting. Its metropolis is a drowning Miami, where global warming is flooding the streets, pushing the rich to higher ground and the poor into sinking slums called the “Sunken Coast.” Veterans from ravenous wars drown their trauma in booze, hard drugs, or a submersion tank where their treasured memories can resurface all shiny and new. One such vet is Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman), who provides guided meditation to make the crossing to these memories a smooth journey. He’s aided by his war buddy Watts (Westworld’s Thandiwe Newton), who doles out tough love between swigs of her flask. Together, they give comfort to the broken, but are barely breaking even. Then, she walks in.
Every noir worth its world-weary voiceover has a femme fatale who is as dazzling as she is dangerous. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation stunner Rebecca Ferguson fills this role as sublimely as she does the glittering, glamorous gowns by costume designer Jennifer Starzyk. From the moment nightclub chanteuse Mae locks eyes with the hardened Nick, you know he has a soft spot for her. Like so many lovestruck dicks of noir, that soft spot for a damsel in distress will bring him plenty of trouble, including collisions with crooked cops, an eccentric kingpin, and a mystery he can’t resist. All that begins when Mae vanishes, leaving Nick to scour memories for clues. He’s not a traditional detective, but a man obsessed with what he’s lost works all the same.
The blending of neo-noir conventions with this neon-lit sci-fi dystopia gives Reminiscence a familiar yet fresh feel, as if we are stepping into the machine of movie memories. A color palette saturated with gold, vermillion, and teals bolster this feeling, being a bit too bright against the grime of this city to feel real. Could any color be so radiant in this world? Could any dame be so perfect as Mae? Like a poisonous creature, these violently vibrant colors are a warning: Turn back, don’t look back! Lucky for us, Nick turns a blind eye to these low-cut red flags, because his adventure is thrilling.
Jackman leans into Logan territory here, playing a grizzled man who is stitched together by trauma and smug confidence that he’s got the world figured out…until he doesn’t. As he did in the (loathsome) The Greatest Showman, the dashing leading man shares an electric chemistry with Ferguson, which makes even a PG-13 sex scene surprisingly steamy. Meanwhile, she must play the mystery, a woman who might be an angel or a devil. With enigmatic expressions and a penetrating gaze, Ferguson gives shades of Gone Girl amid doe-eyed dreaminess. Newton is her foil, offering a countenance that flashes with cynicism, irritation, and—when called for—tenderness. Westworld’s Angela Sarafyan and Cliff Curtis also pop in, bringing fragility and hostility respectively. But the intoxicating scene-stealer of this crackling cast is Daniel Wu as NOLA drug dealer Saint Joe.
His appearance is brief, yet Wu exudes ‘90s-era Gary Oldman energy. He makes a meal of every line—be it a threat or an exclamation (“My tank!”). While a buttoned-down Jackman brings a stiff machismo into their showdown, Wu is fluid and wild. His movements are complimented by a flowing silk robe, worn open over jeans, his bared chest a brash dare. Even as he’s under attack, Saint Joe’s devil-may-care attitude erupts into exhilaration. It’s contagious. While Jackman grounds the film, Ferguson gives it mystique, and Wu knocks Reminiscence up to twisted fun.
Still, Reminiscence falls prey to some of the Nolan brothers’ favorite indulgences, even though Westworld co-creator Jonathan Nolan is only a producer. Some might allege that the premise of a man-on-a-mission to save his girl while at war with his memories is snatching from Memento. The similarities are largely superficial. However, Joy does employ a popular—and oft criticized—element of Christopher Nolan’s crime thrillers in her final act. While she earns its use through sharp storytelling, it’s sure to spark some snarking.
More damaging is Joy’s aggressive exposition dump in act one, delivered with a voiceover from Jackman that screams “studio notes.” Instead of just showing this world and how the Reminiscence machine works, Nick’s narration explains the visual language, as if the audience couldn’t be trusted to do so on their own. Perhaps producers feared that the day-and-date HBO Max release would mean audiences wouldn’t be as patient as those who turned out for Tenet, a movie that refused to release its premise for much of its marketing campaign (or even make much sense in full).
Maybe that’s fair. Joy doesn’t have the name recognition or ferocious fandom of Nolan. So this risk might have been too big a swing for her feature debut. Still, this makes for a sluggish begin. Thankfully, once Reminiscence gets rolling, it’s a slick and satisfying ride that barrels to an ending that is suitably beautiful and bleak.