Lisa Joy’s sci-fi movie Reminiscence lays out a terrible future by staring back at the past
RoughlyThere are two types of dystopian science-fiction movies. Those who assume that there’s a way for protagonists to fight back against whatever has ruined the world and those who cynically say there isn’t. The fight-back movies (e.g., Elysium, Divergent, Ready Player One) usually have one main villain that the hero must defeat to make things right. But while the don’t-bother-it’s-too-late films tend to be less rousing and thrilling, they’re often much more nuanced and textured and more relatable to those of us who live in a world without one simple, obvious villain.
Westworld creator Lisa Joy explains why in this noir-future mystery Remembrance, It takes place in a future that has seen the worst of evils and no one can stop them. Instead, the characters face their own personal, smaller battles against despair just as much as any other. Reminiscence doesn’t offer much hope for a better tomorrow, but it does provide a sense of familiarity and realness despite the fantastical details.
Reminiscence shows that human-induced global warming caused the melting of the polar glaciers, increased ocean levels, and a series of wars to protect dwindling resources and dry land. Imagine a flood-prone Miami in the future. In some areas, giant walls keep the ocean at bay, while others look more like Venice. There are canals replacing streets and boat traffic replacing cars. Miami is now completely nocturnal because of the extreme daytime temperatures.
There’s no indication that anyone is trying to solve the problem. The floods, wars, and heat aren’t just the calculated backdrop for Reminiscence‘s actual story; they’re the long-accepted backdrop for an entire culture of drained and impotent characters. Although the changes that have been made to the city are visible in almost every shot, Hugh Jackman’s boring voiceover, which slams on exposition, is the only comment. It’s all just what they expect from the crapsack future they’ve ended up in. It’s no surprise that the film’s main theme is nostalgia and holding on to lost comforts.
Jackman plays Nick Bannister, a proprietor of a small shop offering full-immersion flashbacks of their pasts. With drugs, an immersion tank, and an electrical brain-induction rig, Nick and his old military partner Watts (Westworld‘s Thandiwe Newton) let people fully re-experience their own memories, perfect down to every tiny detail, and complete with you-are-there sensation. The visualizer, stage-like in appearance, simultaneously displays those memories in 3D splendour to everyone present. It’s easy to overlook the purpose of the visualizer. If the technology is only intended for clients to relive their pasts in 3D, what does it matter if others can see those memories?
Joy brings to Reminiscence the same thoughtful exploration of technology that she brought to Westworld. Although the new technology looks spectacular and cinematic, it has a profound impact on society. It is used in court depositions to reveal the truth and for interrogation by police to uncover the criminals’ memories. In those cases, the memories of the institutional witnesses are more important than the immobilized and drugged subjects who offer them up.
This is just background. The real purpose of the visualizer in Reminiscence is to let Nick fully fall into his past, as he gets lost in the mysteries of his memories. Watts and Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) are on their regular client list when Mae slips in one night and asks for assistance with her keys. Soon, she and Nick became lovers. Then, suddenly, she vanished. Nick is convinced that something horrible has happened to Mae and begins to relive his past, searching for clues. Gradually, he begins to see hints that Mae wasn’t the person she claimed to be. He’s drawn into a criminal plot with Watts reluctantly following him.
Watts clearly has feelings for Nick. But she is also pragmatic and clear about her obsession with Nick’s two-faced woman. This three-way dynamic and the film’s emphasis on music, performance and tech-assisted recall Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 science fiction movie Strange Days. The casting of Newton seems intentional, even though it is a specific racial role. Her role in this film mirrors Angela Bassett in Strange Days. They are similarly depicted as self-contained warrior-women aware that they are half in love and half outraged by sentimental chumps. (As audiences may be — the spectre of yet another competent, badass woman of colour trailing around after a drippy, self-absorbed white dude who barely notices her is Reminiscence‘s worst echo of what was already a painful dynamic.)
Reminiscence is often reminiscent of Bigelow’s film. However, it leans more into the noir-movie tradition than Strange Days as Nick tracks down Mae’s past. In some ways, she is a classic femme fatale. She’s a beautiful mystery who enters the life of the hero patsy, disrupts it, and then returns to her troubles, tempting Nick to fix them. There’s more to her story than clichés. Ferguson’s voice is evocative and opaque. This makes it difficult to sell the mystery. Jackman transforms Nick into a book. He is nakedly longing for one thing in his past life and can’t believe Jackman could have made it a lie.
Each viewer will bring their own emotional biases when interpreting Nick. This could be a romantic hero who is determined to find true love but also a stalker who causes harm to himself and others by not letting go of his irrational obsessions. Although he is a bit of both, it’s funny that a film so focused on past relationships will play out differently for different audiences. Jackman is as charismatic as ever, but the script makes Jackman repetitive, clueless and simplistic. It’s easy for people to get frustrated with Jackman and his quest. This is because movies almost always reward such a persistent pursuit of seemingly unwilling women. So viewers may have to recall past rom-com and noir movies to set their expectations.
Reminiscences is a solid noir mystery. It has a lot of complications and surprising revelations. There are also double-crossings and double-dealings. The movie’s character dynamics are what most fail, even if you don’t find yourself swooning at Nick’s monomania. Nick’s soppy voiceover steers the audience towards self-pity and maudlin self-pity. It also makes it difficult for viewers to sit back and enjoy the elaborate dystopian spectacle. It is an annoying, intrusive drag that tries to tell the audience what to think and feel. Joy’s symbolism is not always light-hearted. A bit of business with a lost queen from a deck card is an absurdly gratuitous piece of stagecraft in a story of a missing woman…