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Non-Review Review: Reminiscence

Reminiscence is an intriguing concept in desperate need of a stronger execution.

Reminiscence marks the feature film directorial debut of Lisa Joy, the co-creator of Westworld. In some ways, this is revealing. It often seems like the best version of Reminiscence might be a television pilot, a two-hour feature-length exploration of a futuristic dystopia that lays a lot of groundwork to be explored by later episodes and seasons. It’s very clear that Joy has put a lot of thought into the world of Reminiscence, about how it works and how it developed, and why it turned out the way it did. All of that work is either on-screen or blasted over the audio system via helpful voiceover exposition.

On the record.

Unfortunately, Reminiscence struggles to devote any real energy to its actual narrative or characters. Reminiscence is clearly constructed as an affectionate homage to classic film noir, in everything from its production design to its plot structure to its thematic concerns. However, it lacks the richness and the complexity that distinguishes the best of the genre. Instead, because so much time is spent explaining and re-explaining the mechanics of the world, everything else feels like a thinly-drawn sketch.

Reminiscence often feels like the faded memory of a much more engaging film.

Shining a light on it.

The world of Reminiscence is interesting and well-developed. The film devoted a lot of narrative real estate to explaining the history of this fundamentally broken world. Reminiscence is mostly set in Miami, which has effectively transformed into a sunken city like Venice. Climate change has caused the ocean levels to rise. The wealthy parts of the city insulated themselves, while life in the poorer areas continues to largely work around the existential threat with hastily-constructed and ineffective half-measures that provide some measure of normality.

Joy has clearly extrapolated several points from this core premise. There are several references to the “border wars” that were fought in response to climate change, with most of the cast comprised of veterans from a series of wars that did not end well. There are allusions to the idea of internment of non-white Americans. There is a suggestion that income inequality has only increased, and that the casualties of climate change – whether in terms of displacement or in terms of burst levees – have always been those without the money to protect themselves.

The Nick of Time.

There are some genuinely interesting trickle-down implications of all this. With temperatures rising, Joy implies that humanity has effectively become a nocturnal species. It is too hot to work during the day, so most business is conducted at night with “sunset” and “sunrise” effectively inverted in terms of social context. It’s a very clever way of justifying the familiar film noir aesthetic, of creating a world where all the characters haunt and populate the night.

All of this detail is largely incidental to the plot of Reminiscence, which focuses on a technology that can allow subjects to project their memories. Again, there is a relatively complex amount of exposition around the devleopment and history of this technology. It was developed by the military as an interrogation tool, before it made its way into the private market. It is possible for the technology to be weaponised and for it to be addictive. It can be used to scar images into a person’s psyche, or it can serve as a rabbit hole into which they might escape.

That sinking feeling.

This is a lot of information to throw at an audience before the actual plot starts, and Reminiscence suffers in large part because – even after the plot has started – it needs to keep stopping to make sure that the viewer is still following along every step of the way. It’s interesting that the actual plot of Reminiscence is remarkably straightforward and constrained for a mystery like this, but that is simply because the exposition is taking up so much of the dialogue and screentime that there’s no actual room for anything particularly fancy in terms of plotting.

Hugh Jackman stars as Nick Bannister, a veteran of these “border wars” who now operates a clinic that allows customers to revisit their favourite memories. One evening, he strikes up a connection with a late arrival, a nightclub singer named Mae who claims to be looking for her lost keys. Nick and Mae quickly embark on a love affair, with Nick falling head over heels for this strange woman. However, Mae suddenly disappears from his life. Nick sets out to find her, but finds himself wondering whether Mae was ever the woman that he thought her to be and whether their relationship is perhaps best consigned to memory.

Lady in red.

There are a number of key structural problems with Reminiscence, most of which stem from the sheer volume of exposition necessary to make the world work. The first and most obvious problem is that the movie’s central mysteries are all painfully and obviously telegraphed, and most audience members will end up several steps ahead of Nick based on nothing more than the law of conservation of detail. Reminiscence is a movie that expends so much of its time explaining the world to the audience that virtually anything that doesn’t build up the mythology of the world stands out as set-up for a later and inevitable reveal.

For example, when Nick’s business partner Watts explicitly mentions that a regular customer – who was established earlier in the film – has stopped showing up for their appointments, it is very obvious that this character will turn out to have some connection to the central mystery. When Mae tells Nick about her only friend in Miami, it is striking that this live of dialogue isn’t literally the first thread that Nick chooses to follow, even though it would easily shave a good hour off the movie’s runtime.

A memorable evening?

On a more fundamental level, though, there’s also a depressing literalism to Reminiscence. After all, this is a movie about a machine that allows characters to relive their memories. What must that actually be like? How would that screw with perception? Is memory distorted, whether through personal attachment or through constant revisitation? Instead, because Reminiscence has so much else going on, the film is depressingly literal about how memory works within the world of the film.

One of Nick’s early conversations with Mae is largely given over to justifying the third person perspective in these broadcast memories, which suggests how literal-minded the script is. Because this is a movie about technology that shows memories, there is no discussion of other sensory memories – touch or smell or taste. More than that, there is never any real sense of how an emotional association with a memory might shape or impact it. The memory imagery is depressingly straightforward and strangely impersonal. It is like security camera footage, obscuring the inherent subjectivity of memory.

Come what Mae.

The structure of Reminiscence means that the movie is more preoccupied with showcasing particular ideas or concepts than it is in telling a story or delving into these characters. As Nick tries to track down Mae, the plot largely serves as connective tissue for a collection of scenes that seem intended to showcase the world rather than illuminate Nick’s journey through it. Nick gets to demonstrate the application of the technology as an interrogation tool, then he gets to confront a drug dealer, then he gets to visit the wealthy inhabitants of the city who have constructed their own elaborate nostalgic worlds.

There are intermittently interesting images here, such as a wealthy old woman who has built a real-life stage on which she can play out her happiest memory. Indeed, there are moments when Reminiscence threatens to get more abstract and dream-like, with Nick taking a water-logged train journey to New Orleans that recalls nothing so much as a key scene from Spirited Away. Even the basic imagery of the memory tank, with its projection on to clear strands dangling from the ceiling, is almost evocative.

A familiar tune.

More than that, there are a host of interesting themes and ideas in Reminiscence. At its core, this is a movie about the lure of nostalgia. At one point, Nick narrates the story of Orpheus to Mae, the ultimate cautionary tale about the dangers of looking back. It feels almost pointed when Nick warns that “the past is addictive”, given that Reminiscence is one of the relatively rare non-intellectual-property and non-nostalgia-driven blockbusters this year.

There’s something interesting in the movie’s repeated parallelling of nostalgia as a form of addiction, and in the idea that the characters all retreating from an uncertain future or disappointing present into a more romanticised past. Even outside of the world of memories, Nick wanders through monuments to nostalgia – rundown amusement parks, elaborate sets, retro nightclubs. What does it mean that mankind has turned its gaze backwards at a point when things are this bad? However, Reminiscence never follows any of its ideas to their conclusions – the film’s climax even seems to shrug its shoulders on the dangers of nostalgia.

It’s a bit of a wash.

Reminiscence is unable or unwilling to simply luxuriate in any of these interesting elements. Instead, it is constantly establishing a new premise or a new idea, having its characters deliver mountains of uncomfortable and sometimes unnecessary exposition. Joy has assembled an impressive supporting cast, including Westworld veterans Thandiwe Newton and Angela Sarafyan, but gives none of them room to work. Even Rebecca Ferguson, who should be perfectly suited to a film noir role like this, is saddled with clichéd dialogue like “always makes promises that it can’t keep.”

The film is so muddled that several big reveals about the recursive nature of the plot – the shock twist that the audience has been watching one character’s memory of events – just serve to muddy the water. There is something potentially interesting in the movie’s central hook, in the obvious comparison between a film and a memory, with Nick’s audio journey even having DVD chapter titles, and there is perhaps something to be said for excusing some of the film’s more clichéd elements as filtered through a character’s faded memories, but Reminiscence doesn’t do enough to earn that possible reading.

The memory man.

Indeed, it’s hard not to watch Reminiscence without thinking of other and better science-fiction film noir. In particular, Reminiscence invites awkard comparisons to Inception, a film made by Lisa Joy’s brother-in-law. This is obvious in a number of ways. The water and urban decay imagery links the two films, as does the late capitalist setting and the suited protagonist. Both movies hinge on military technology for invading a subject’s mind, with Inception focusing on dreams and Reminiscence focusing on memories. In both cases, that military technology has been repurposed for civilian and commercial use.

There are even explicit parallels in how the technology is applied. It is possible for character to lose themselves in the memories, just as they did with the dreams. Even Nick’s repeated triggered phrase “you are going on a journey…” seems designed to evoke Cobb and Mal’s shared metaphor “you are waiting for a train…” The comparisons between Reminiscence and Inception are inescapable, and it is perhaps to the credit of Reminiscence that the film leans into them rather than half-heartedly denying them.

All is ferris in love and war.

Nick Bannister does not feel so far removed from Dominic Cobb. Both are characters who are clearly unravelling, while enabled by the people around them – Cobb has Arthur, while Nick has Watts. Both are haunted by the memory of a lost love – Cobb has Mal, Nick has Mae. There is perhaps something to be said for the way in which Reminiscence tries to give Mae her own agency rather than simply having her exist as a projection of Nick’s memory of her, but it also undercuts the thematic point. Mal is not a complicated character, but she’s a reflection of a complicated facet of Cobb.

There are, of course, shades of other Christopher Nolan movies in here. In particular, the casting of Hugh Jackman as a man obsessed with the fate of his lost love recalls the basic set-up of The Prestige. It’s notable that Nick’s journey to discover what happened to Mae featured repeated attempted drownings, another recurring image within Nolan’s filmography and another specific fixation of Angier’s obsession within The Prestige. Still, it is Inception that remains the strongest film in the mix.

Getting her head on straight.

More to the point, these comparisons between Reminiscence and Inception only underscore how much better Chirstopher Nolan is at balancing the competing demands of exposition and narrative – of explaining the story to the audience while also telling the story. In Inception, Cobb uses the metaphor of the brain’s ability to create and process information at the same time, and that’s testament to how Inception works. The movie explains itself through action, character and plotting – and then sets up dominoes that it can knock down in its second half. In contrast, Reminiscence just keeps buffering with more and more exposition.

This gets at the other big reference point for Reminiscence. The bulk of the movie is narrated by Nick. Obviously, this is intended to evoke classic film noir. Nick is supposed to sound like the jaded old gumshoe. It also helps to explain the movie’s world to the audience. Joy does make an effort to explain this contrivance within the world of the film, but it ultimately feels less like a major plot twist than an awkward attempt to justify the reliance on a really terrible execution of a familiar narrative shortcut.

A movie of note.

The constant voiceover exposition guiding the audience through a futuristic dystopia recalls nothing more than the theatrical cut of Blade Runner. Nick’s constant voiceover is perhaps a little more artful than Dekkard’s, but only barely. It seems just as committed to ensuring that the audience is never lost or confused by anything that is happening, betraying a frustrating lack of confidence in the rest of the film to explain its own logic to the audience. As with the theatrical cut of Blade Runner, the voiceover in Reminiscence feels strangely condescending and passive aggressive, stripping out a lot of the mystery of the world.

There is a better movie buried somewhere within Reminiscence, a movie that navigates the same themes and ideas with more faith in itself and the audience, feeling more comfortable in what it is doing and more assured in how it is doing it. As it stands, it’s a shame to say that Reminiscence is sadly forgettable.

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