Lisa Joy makes her screenwriting and directorial big screen debut with the upcoming Reminiscence, starring Hugh Jackman as memory retrieval expert Nick Bannister. The film, about a man who becomes obsessed with learning more about the woman he loves by searching through her and other people’s recorded memories, is both an impressive if not thoroughly satisfying first turn by the co-creator of HBO’s Westworld. Impressive, because Joy manages the complex themes and structures of her plot with remarkable dexterity. Unsatisfying, because the film reminds you too much of movies, stories, and ideas you have seen before. Still, the movie, its flash visuals, and star-studded cast are enough to keep you intrigued for the entire runtime.
Reminiscence is at least one part dystopian futuristic thriller. The film is set in near-future Miami, where the oceans have risen and reclaimed back a lot of the city, and the rays of the sun have made it unbearable for humans to carry out their lives during daylight. In this darkened, soggy city, most of the people dwell in impoverished, rundown neighborhoods, while an elite privileged few known as “Barons” inhabit raised terrain protected by taller seawalls.
The film is at least in part a throwback to film noir classics. The cinematography by Paul Cameron (who also shot Joy’s hit HBO series) is moody, mostly darkened and shadowy, and expertly drifts between the various layers of reality that the story presents. A pitch-perfect score by Composer Ramin Djawadi (another HBO favorite, giving his collaboration on the Game of Thrones score) accentuates these somewhat convoluted settings with a mysterious suspense and melancholic crescendos. Even the art direction evokes films like Chinatown or L.A. Confidential, showing a gritty, hard hit city around its hard hit protagonists. The plot, naturally, is also film noir-esque, with Jackman’s Bannister playing the role of the unlikely detective that has to sort through memories—and a complex series of clues leading from one bad guy to the next—to get to the bottom of a sprawling, sinister plot. A series of Bannister voiceovers to take one from one chapter to the next completes the evocation of this style.
And, lastly, Reminiscence is at least a third part a classic mind-bending, semi-time traveling film along the lines of Total Recall, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and even Inception. In this world, humans can relive memories in a very realistic way (and even record them for posterity) by immersing themselves into a memory “tank,” the business of which the main character is involved with. He is aided by his trusty companion Watts (a well-made-up Thandiwe Newton), who warns him against the dangers of becoming too addicted to memories, much like the denizens of the world in Inception did.
As in most such settings, the stakes are heightened for added suspense. In this Minority Report-like world, crime suspects are interrogated not by live questions, but by having their brains and memories probed under court order. In 2021, asking a leading question can get the answer thrown out of court by the judge. In Joy’s world, it can cause a subject’s brain to “blank,” leading perhaps to death and requiring the soothing and guiding voice of Bannister to bring the subject back to normalcy. In 2021, asking someone to focus on a painful memory can cause them to ignore you. In Joy’s world, it can cause the subject to “burn” such that they will be stuck living through that agonizing moment, and the questioner subjected to imprisonment. And so on.
On the one hand, it is nothing short of extraordinary that a first-time director can manage to deftly combine three distinct movie styles into a film that is undoubtedly entertaining and even entrancing despite its repeatedly predictable plot twists. On the other, Reminiscence suffers from the heavy-hand, the trying-to-do-too-much disease that the overwhelming majority of first-time filmmakers fall prey to. That every little scene, every little line that a character delivers later has a role in the story is both clever and also exhausting, particularly when so many supposedly hidden clues are hiding in plain sight. Similarly, that every moment is flourished with Bannister’s philosophical musings on life, love, nostalgia, and death, eventually becomes draining.
But Reminiscence keeps a hold of you because Joy constructed an interesting story and let her supremely talented cast and crew do the rest of the work. Early on, Bannister encounters the enigmatic and stunningly gorgeous Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), who appears at his joint (of all the ones in the drowning world) asking for help retrieving her lost keys. Mae and Bannister fall madly in love, which later leads him to desperately search for answers about her mysterious past in all the memories they have made though, as it predictably turns out, some of the keys are in the reminiscences of those who previously appeared to be secondary, unimportant characters.
Through his journey, Bannister encounters Cliff Curtis as the clichéd corrupt cop, Daniel Wu as a drug-dealing gangster, and Marina de Tavira is a troubled Baron with much to hide and lots to lose. These characters all come in and out of Bannister’s story, which weaves in and out of past and present through Joy’s clever but surprisingly even-keeled used of the “tank” device, edited seamlessly by Mark Yoshikawa.
By the time the credits roll, you will have forgotten nearly all of Reminiscence’s hackneyed one-liners and supposed lessons about the meaning of happy or sad endings to love stories. And the trip will be down memory lane—but down the memory lane of a dozen or so films you have seen before. And, yet, despite all this, the film and its story may end up, somewhat surprisingly, seared into your memory, where you will end up revisiting it for additional clues and moments.
Maybe it will be thanks to Ferguson’s piercing eyes or to Jackman’s sorrowful determination. Maybe it will be because this genre-bending film grabs some of the most familiar and therefore effect tropes from the movies it borrows generously from. Maybe it will be because the setting is meticulously constructed through the careful use of visual effects, lighting, and production design. Or, most likely, you will remember the film because Joy’s first-director shortcomings never overwhelm her unquestionable talents as a dedicated story-teller. Whatever the reason, the sum total of Reminiscence’s parts is a movie you will not easily forget.
Reminiscence will be released by Warner Bros. in theaters and streaming on HBO Max, starting August 20, 2021.
All photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.