Written and directed by Lisa Joy
Reminiscence, or rather what's become of Reminiscence, is hard for me to understand. Oh, I can understand why it bombed financially. It does, after all, remain a pandemic (sort of), and Reminiscence is an original IP in a niche genre (namely sci-fi noir, in a marketplace where even an established IP released in a vastly more favorable atmosphere, Blade Runner 2049, still withered on the vine) and these are a harder sell than they've ever been. Frankly, that title is a turn-off in its own right, disagreeably generic but, I'll admit it, it's also hard to spell. But you know what? We ought to be fucking ashamed. At least as an audience; perhaps as a society. And I did say "we," as I share that shame. I couldn't get there for the opening weekend either, and eventually gave up and watched it on steaming. But I admit my shame, and I would like to catch it in theaters before that window closes. Imagine that. A 2021 film I want to watch twice.
I hadn't even realized, however, that it also got trashed critically; somehow it escaped me till after I saw it that all the Film People, those God damned Film People, whose job or unhealthy hobby it is to watch films, also disliked it. They raked it over the coals. They said it was derivative and unimaginative. A lot of critics who complained of this lack of imagination finished their reviews with how they doubted they'd remember Reminiscence, because it sure would be easy to forget, having failed to give them anything to reminisce about, hardy har eat shit. They know who they are, and they know that inside they're empty. But that's the consensus: Reminiscence is apparently one of the worst movies of the single worst year in cinema history—oh, much worse than Free Guy, because I guess we're all fucking morons now, and worse than all the rest of this year's cavalcade of superficial trash that wasn't even good at being superficial trash, but was given a free pass anyway—and if anything the audience scores on this one are worse than the critics'. It's infuriating. I had a whole rant. That is, a longer one. But it's also depressing: after two years or more of current cinema that, with very few exceptions, has been mediocre shading towards terrible, a movie finally comes along, promising the future doesn't have to be bad movies forever—and nobody even cares. Critics and audiences? I'll see you in hell.
Well, that can't be helped. Making a shitty world is easy and comes naturally, so I suppose it does stand to reason that we were always likely to get born into the worst one that could still produce a species intelligent enough to claw its way out of the primordial bush and then, several hundred thousand years later, invent motion pictures. This is indeed one of several things Reminscence turns out to be about, living in one of the worst of all possible worlds. This is clear from its very first image, and I do not want to make it sound like Reminiscence is without flaw, for it has its fair share, starting with that first image, which is awfully ambitious for a film that only cost $54 million—and, in disclosure, I thought it cost more like $100 million, and finding out that it was half that has better-disposed me towards it. So, behold: a speeding CGI shot across the Atlantic Ocean and into our inevitable future that isn't especially well-done, graphics-wise (it's also a timelapse shot, and the palm leaves never budge), and, of all the things to do by accident, it turns out to resemble the old Miramax logo so much it's distracting, once night falls and every light in the city of Miami comes on.
It communicates the basic fact of this world with a certain admirable bluntness, however, and that's that it's a world deep into climate change and ecological collapse, for this Miami, while still occupied, is flooded, with only a series of seawalls (barely) keeping the ocean at bay, and even then half of the city is still underwater. Meanwhile, it suggests, without saying it out loud, this is a city that lives at night, for the day is now too hot to bear. It's okay that this shot merely suggests this, because Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) will tell us explicitly in his voiceover narration. He'll do this in the next few minutes if he hasn't already, and then he'll keep talking, pretty much throughout the film, about all sorts of other stuff—mostly business, after a fashion.
Nick's business is memory. Once a soldier, Nick and fellow veteran Watts (Thandiwe Newton) now operate a service to recreate experiences, built upon an advanced interrogation tool that can map and manipulate the human brain. Nick and Watts offer it mostly for pleasure, and in a world this degraded and decayed, the escape they provide has proven profitable enough for them to make a living at it. Then again, their office is also in an abandoned highrise right behind a seawall that could collapse at any time, so presumably business isn't that good, and there is a persistent sense that while Nick and Watts might've gotten in on the ground floor of this new industry, they've since been reduced to the cut-rate hustlers they look like, making ends meet (especially since Nick and Watts alike are prone to giving freebies to friends) primarily through selling their skills to the DA's office for the purpose they were originally intended.
One day, a new client, Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), comes in the door, and asks to use the memory tank for the most quotidian purpose imaginable, claiming she's misplaced her keys. Nick obliges her, but in reviewing her memories he starts to fall for her, partly because he saw her naked, partly because he saw her clothed but not clothed very much, partly because he saw a fascinating sadness break through her implacability, and mostly because when he saw her go to work at a nightclub, she sang a song that, by happenstance, triggered memories of his own. He sees her again, at her implicit invitation, and a relationship blooms—they say they're in love—and then, without a word of explanation, she vanishes, as if gone from the face of the planet. He searches, and when he's not searching, he becomes increasingly reliant on his own machine to relive his best memories of the few months he had with her. Watts says he's become obsessed, and she's right, but when a case with the DA gives him a lead on where Mae might have vanished to—and sheds new light on who she was, and what she's done—he can't help but follow, even if he might've been better off leaving her a memory.
The word is "noir," and Reminiscence is a remarkably pure strain, oddly more embedded in the contemporary concerns of noir as an actual movement in the 40s than the phrase "sci-fi noir" could possibly suggest, given its conjuring of Blade Runner or Dark City, which after all only use their noir trappings as a starting point for other ideas. Reminiscence, on the other hand, only has a sci-fi premise and setting; it damned near feels like a movie about an alternate history where catastrophic climate change happened in the 1930s rather than the 2030s and it's actually set in 1948 in a sideways universe where this is its version of whatever noir classic it most resembles (ultimately, I'm not sure it actually resembles any of them specifically, though I'm probably overlooking something obvious; it certainly resembles all of them generally).
So let's get the bad out of the way, which is not the shortest list although almost everything on it's trivial. For starters, I'm pretty sure a neurologist would tell you memory doesn't work at all like an external camera recording events in 4K detail to be replayed in the form of a third-person holodeck program, but one must spot a movie its premise and, yes, its metacinematic impulses. Otherwise, the voiceover is the easiest to notice and to mock, though, you know, it's supposed to be arch and faintly ridiculous; the main objection is that it has a tendency to overenunciate facts about character and setting that Joy is extremely eager for you to know, rather than discover or intuit. That's a mild irritant diluted within the throwback pleasure of Jackman doing his best (and, indeed, damned fine) hard-boiled gruffness, but can be damaging when it starts infecting actual dialogue, not usually too badly though Joy jams a summing up monologue into Newton's mouth in the next-to-last scene that, because of its position, interferes more than it ever should with what is otherwise a pitch-perfect finale. And sometimes the dialogue is just kind of dumb, not because it's florid or overwritten, but because Joy didn't quite put enough thought into it (presumably to explain Ferguson's accent, a question nobody would ever ask, Joy has her state that when London sank, she fled to New Orleans—good choice!), and for reasons unclear to anybody besides Joy, she has a Chinese-American demi-villain whom Nick encounters halfway through his quest (Daniel Wu) pepper his speech with Mandarinisms like a Chris Claremont character. Though, hell, when Wu delivers his arbitrary Mandarin in a Cajun accent, even that has gonzo charm.
The more overriding problem, and the only one I'm remotely ready to consider a problem, is that the atmosphere is a little off sometimes: not in terms of "Nick's descent into a hell defined by his own stupid, lovelorn choices," which Joy pulls off completely, but in terms of scene-setting. For a film that directly tells you, more than once, that in this post-warming Florida day has become unendurable, there sure are a lot of scenes set in the daytime. Sometimes this provides a sort of uncanny reversal with an empty daylight city, sometimes it just doesn't matter because electric light and active nights have been with us longer than movies. And this is just kibbitzing, but I'd probably have had some rain somewhere.
The only way this really becomes an issue, though, is that it never feels hot, just sunny. There's a lot to like in Paul Cameron's cinematography, who once upon a time did a formal masterpiece in Collateral, though this feels a lot more like a Janusz Kaminski with somebody leaning on him for slightly more color, with a metallic tint that makes the film feel appropriately flinty and a use of streaming lights that's pretty and offers a sensation of uncomfortable brightness, but still comes off slightly too brittle and desaturated to get at heat. This is the most endemic aspect of the overarching "problem," which is that Joy's maybe not as naturally imagistic as a Spielberg or early-career Scott (who inevitably come to mind as the directors behind Joy's most obvious inspirations in A.I., Minority Report, and the aforementioned Blade Runner, with a small debt—that a lot of people would like to overstate because he's her brother-in-law—owed to Christopher Nolan, in the form of Inception's third act and maybe Inception's protagonist, with the downside being no blow-your-hair-to-the-back-of-the-auditorium manipulation of time, and the upside being the absence of any impression of watching someone else play a video game). Anyway, for every shot demonstrating skill and playfulness—I unironically adore the overflowing glass standing in for a cumshot, or, perhaps, squirting—there's another born out of a certain does-the-jobness that belies her TV history. (For example, the frequent default to banal shot/reverse-shot conversations, or even that otherwise excellent shot of Nick admiring Mae's ass from the background, while the foreground depicts her self-satisfaction at having an admirable ass, that leaves Jackman fuzzy, and demands a deeper focus, if for nothing else because it's Nick's memory. I've never seen a shot that cried out for split-diopter more, including every shot in every 70s movie that did use split-diopter.)
But I keep scare-quoting "problem," and complain only because formalism demands formal analysis. (And Reminscence still might be the year's best-photographed movie anyway, because 2021 cinematography has largely been either clown-shoes or so boring I've wanted to die.) The main thing, though, Joy gets so fucking right it hurts.
There's a lot of good stuff around that main thing: I dig the "Jesus, what now?" detective yarn of the plot, which winds its way through the class divisions of future Miami; the bitter purple prose of Jackman's narration is mostly a blast, and you can tell Jackman's having a blast delivering it; and as much as I've maybe been overly critical, if montage is the soul of cinema, then I think Joy and editor Mark Yoshikawa's cinema is just fine, as Reminiscence is edited terrifically well overall, propulsive between scenes and within them, and with a whole lot of little kniving flashes of memory scattered throughout. These justify themselves as much for their affective resonance and how they suggest the past-bound permanent now of Nick's life as they do their narrative purpose. The best of these transitions is more of a script thing than an editing thing (but hey, the director did write it), involving a flawlessly-disorienting fake-out at the end of the first act that sends us months into the future and does an amazing amount of emotional work in just one cut to underscore the way the ground's given way beneath our poor hero. Oh, and I never expected that Reminiscence would have a fantastic, surprisingly-brutal improvised-weapons fight sequence, but it does, inside a flooded building that does achieve that sense of haunted visual poetry the film's been searching for. Not to mention a small, unstressed idea that plays in the moment like an unmotivated Vertigo reference, but I think is better interpreted as a useful injection of pure gross sleaze, while gesturing forcefully at the deeper current animating the film, of a desperate desire for hope in a hopeless world.
That's the thing in Reminiscence. That world is hopeless—ecologically, politically, spiritually—and it circles us back 'round to that uncut noirishness I was talking about. I'm impressed in particular, for example, by how Reminiscence manages to be a "post-war" film within its universe, but in this sense it's even more noir than noir, given that noir was about beating Hitler and finding no meaning back home, but, because of its climate disaster, Reminscence's war was about committing crimes against humanity to protect the American ark on the Mexican border. And it doesn't really probe that any more than it has to—but when it does have to, it doesn't shy away, and it's effective thanks to the gratifyingly deft touch Joy brings to a film that, unfortunately, must be considered as nakedly political in every exterior shot.
But it's more concerned still with the meaning of loss, and, it is, in its heart of hearts, still a romance. It is mostly a very one-sided one—Jackman is extravagantly great (if anything, Joy owes more to The Prestige than Inception) at latching onto Nick's grief and confusion and rage, and Ferguson is arguably even better as the enigma he couldn't resist, well-cast for the sharpness of her beauty and the intelligence behind that beauty, just for starters, and presented with complexities that she's required to unfold secondhand while maintaining the purity of what that character ultimately is, which is almost entirely just an idea in Nick's head. (This is another thing that infuriates me: Ferguson is a genuine-item Movie Star who's doing all her most outstanding work in movies nobody sees.) Even Newton, in her smaller role, finds a sad and sympathetic vibe barely hiding beneath drunken badassery. This is where the plot device of a memory machine becomes, unexpectedly, a world-class metaphor. There's truth in the self-annihilation that Joy lays out for Jackman to pursue as Nick tries to understand what he could have done differently. But then, you never can do anything differently, can you?
If you haven't felt this, I don't know if that necessarily makes you lucky. But I have, and Reminscence—I'm hesitant to say, because it makes it more intensely subjective than I like even when I've said a thousand times "objectivity" doesn't exist in criticism—it tore that feeling right out of me, though if I'm being very honest, it's never been buried very deep. Sometimes nothing ever seems good enough again, and through technology, Nick's plunged himself into the perfect recreation of the most all-consuming passion he'll ever know, and there is nothing but the thinnest sci-fi veil between this and a man literally jacking off to the best sex he'll ever have. (I think Reminscence puts paid to the idea that identity matters much in storytelling, incidentally; certain feelings are universal, but if there is, somehow, some specifically masculine pathology to this particular feeling, God bless her, Joy gets it.) So as noir as it gets, it's the most achingly sentimental film I've seen in years, ultimately becoming—and this is a bit of a spoiler—a beautiful wish-fulfilment fantasy that assures us that she still loved us after all. Unlikely, but beautiful. This arrives in a climax that uses the memory machine in ways that broke my heart, and things conclude with an exquisitely bittersweet ending that confirms that there's never any more future if you go far enough, but maybe that's okay if the past has wonders you can hang onto. It's a movie that openly references Orpheus and Eurydice, in its final line, and earns it. It's so good at this one thing, every little quibble falls away, and there's little left to say but to call it one of the great noirs, great romances, great movies.