Review: Reminiscence

There’s often a lot of talk among film fans that “they don’t make ’em like they used to”, and while they don’t actually speak like 1950s English blokes down the pub, the sentiment is quite strongly held when it comes to the types of films made. You’ll no doubt have heard at least one person in your life bemoan the popularity of superhero movies, as if no one genre ever dominated cinema before – except Westerns did, war films did, and god knows how many other genres have going back to the birth of cinema.

This is a long-winded way of saying that for many, certain types of films “aren’t made anymore” – which is bullshit, and predicated more along the lines of “I don’t see this sort of film in the cinema, therefore it’s not made”. All types of films continue to be made, and the bonus of streaming is that risks are taken that haven’t been by blockbuster franchise-dependent major studios.

Saying that however, Reminiscence is a great example of a type of film perceived as not often made that has, in fact, been made – with Warner Bros deciding to spend a fair bit of money (not blockbuster levels) on what amounts to a sci-fi noir. It’s got previous with a couple of little films called Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 in this space, but director and writer Lisa Joy (one of the makers of Westworld with partner Jonathan Nolan, brother of director Christopher Nolan) brings us an impressive, more level-headed, less out-there future noir to join those classics.

In Miami at an undefined point in the near future, a climate change-ravaged world has seen unspecified “border wars” and great turmoil. Most of the low-level parts of the city are underwater, and days are too hot in which to go outside – so people live their lives at night. In such a grim time with very little to look forward to or enjoy, a technology allowing people to relive memories has been created, with one firm offering these services run by veterans Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) and ‘Watts’ (Thandiwe Newton).

After a mysterious woman called Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) visits one day to seek help finding her keys, Nick becomes enchanted, but her mysterious disappearance leads him down a rabbit hole of memory and pain that reveals dark truths about the world, as well as teaching us that age-old lesson: people aren’t always what they seem.

That synopsis, minus the sci-fi or dystopian setting, could have been ripped wholesale from the noir movies of old, and Joy’s cleverly soldered all three genres together to make a quite unique and interesting drama-thriller. Uncharitable reviewers have pointed out that her familial connections can be seen in the plot’s utilisation of a technology involving the mind, and a plotline concerning memory (Inception and Memento have been invoked), but this film feels less about either and more about both, if that makes sense.

It really seems to be about memory in that it questions how powerful it can be, and yet how it can be damaging to live too much in the past; while it also makes a strong point about privacy and how people can be so wrong with their assumptions about others. Nick and Watts’ job is to watch people’s memories, and it seems as if their intrusions into people’s lives (memories are stored away, repeat customers return to relive the same memories) are something that has come to taint their own lives by proxy.

Joy’s first film as a director, Reminiscence isn’t perfect (it takes a while to get where it’s going, and the central mystery is – in retrospect – telegraphed from the outset), but it’s a different type that isn’t made for cinemas as much anymore. Having written the script, she also takes oft-misogynist noir tropes and flips them around: our male protagonist’s faith in the woman he obsesses over is less salacious and more emotional, while her integral part in the plot – and where the twists take her – do far more to make her a complicated, interesting character than where other films would have just made her a femme fatale or damsel in distress.

It does stumble with a conscious choice to oft-handedly reference elements of its intriguing future, and while we get nice glimpses (via effective CGI) of the bizarre us vs them waterworld Miami has become, there are just too many concepts shared in exposition that deserve time or explanation, whether visual or explanatory. It’s a shame, because said elements (an oft-referenced but never seen conflict, and the concept of land barons, the new power brokers in this flooded world) are skirted over as and when needed rather than given room to breathe.

However, it has a strong visual style, with a gloomy but sun-kissed vibe, with haunting post-climate change cityscapes and noirish neons reflected in water, alongside dilapidated or abandoned buildings left to the sea. Mark Yoshikawa’s editing deftly sifts and shifts in the scenes that feature the memory technology, which is depicted as an almost net curtain-like picture show – memory is so key, and he dots memories within present recollections, as well as cleverly intercutting scenes you don’t realise are memories until later.

A lot of why the film works is down to Jackman and Ferguson’s performances, with the Aussie excellent as a less washed-up, more splintering-apart ghost of a man desperately searching for a person he feels can fix him. Jackman’s action chops aren’t needed much until the latter parts, so instead his acting skills (so often shunned) take centre stage. He paints Nick’s empty life and grasping attempts to find relevance in a sympathetic light, and his insatiable need to find closure is cleverly played with to make us doubt him – noir tropes being used and then subverted, as we learn more about what’s happened.

Ferguson is a great actress even in in big blockbusters (and is better than some films deserve): here you can tell she enjoyed playing a character that starts off just like a noir film’s sexy ideal, but who – as the film continues, and revelations pile up – is full of depths, flaws and surprises. She’s a deeply complex woman that Ferguson plays particularly well, whether in despair, addiction or just hiding her reality from people she just wants to forget the past with.

If there’s a character that deserved a bit more depth and time, it’s Thandiwe Newton’s right hand woman ‘Watts’, whose backstory is eventually laid out but who serves a series of roles that might have been given to multiple characters. Newton gives her all in more emotionally-charged scenes, but is let down in some stereotypical ways (think “female sidekick with hidden feelings” trope), and the script’s opaque references to larger elements of the fictional world that relate directly to Watts mean we’re left to take meaning from things we’re told about, not shown.

The rest of a very small main cast include Cliff Curtis’ volatile and distinctly broken corrupt cop Cyrus Boothe, with the Kiwi actor giving an otherwise odious villain shades of broken humanity even amidst less-than-human actions. Westworld star Angela Sarafyan pops up as a doom-laden customer, while character actor Brett Cullen gives good sleaze as land baron Walter Sylvan, who recurs in the central mystery; and Mexican actress Marina de Tavira makes a haunting cameo as his wife, a damaged shell of a woman living in the past thanks to the technology.

I thought Reminiscence had a clever conceit and a unique setting, making it a rare film that realistically depicts how shit everything might get when it comes to the environmental crisis heading our way. It’s not perfect by any stretch (some better characterisation and less stereotypical nods to noirs might have helped, as well as explaining some of its future world), but in comparison to much that’s made it into cinemas since they reopened, it’s both thought-provoking and interesting.

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