Reminiscence Review: A Potentially Thrilling Noir Bogged Down by Ambition

After spending several years bringing HBO's Westworld to life (alongside husband Jonathan Nolan), Lisa Joy is finally making her foray into feature films with Reminiscence. Much like Westworld, Reminiscence takes place in a not-too-distant future and its mysterious story revolves around our attachment to dangerous technology. Unlike Joy's Emmy-winning series, however, Reminiscence doesn't do much to hook you in. It's a beautifully designed noir with some great performances and an absolutely stellar premise, but the films fails to do much with any of it, resulting in a muddled mystery that leaves you asking, "Is that it?"

Hugh Jackman stars in Reminiscence as Nick Bannister, a war veteran who has taken up a career in nostalgia. He and his partner — played by a wonderful Thandiwe Newton — run a business using technology that was pioneered during the recent war as a way to extract information from enemies. To put it simply: Nick can help clients live inside their own memories, experiencing and feeling things just as they did the first time they happened. While helping the Miami DA with a case, Nick catches a glimpse of his lost lover, Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), and realizes that she may have had a secret life before they met. He begins following the clues — both in reality and in his own memories — to find out what happened to Mae.

The entire story is set to the backdrop of a dystopian future that plays on the current climate crisis. Water levels around the world have risen, leading to many coastal cities (like Miami) to become engulfed in water. People use boats to get around instead of cars and trains splash on rails that sit just above the water's surface. Due to the immense heat, the city has become nocturnal, with most businesses only operating at night.

This setting is a wildly unique one that helps provide the coolest moments in Reminiscence. There's so much to unpack in that unsettling future that every shot of the busy city comes with more questions about how the world got to that point. There's also a really interesting allegory with the water, in that Nick's memory machine requires clients to lie beneath it, hinting that — like the city itself — all that was good and righteous from the past stayed behind when the tide rose and the entire world changed.

All of that water makes for some interesting set pieces, but it doesn't do a whole lot to actually help the story along. It's a setting choice that steals the show from a film that's supposed to be about a character's battle with his own past, as well as an obsessive mystery that has shrouded his present.

Reminiscence is presented like a classic noir tale in a sci-fi setting, complete with a dreary voiceover from the protagonist. Unfortunately, the mystery itself gets bogged down. There's entirely too much going on, giving you very little chance to care about anything in particular.

Nick is hell-bent on finding out what happened to Mae, but there are numerous side stories that seem to be somehow connected to her fate. There's a rancid businessman who killed a lot of people to get some deals done, taking advantage of the apocalyptic scenarios in Miami to further his own ventures. There's a dirty cop whose motives aren't entirely clear. And there's a young boy at the middle of everything, who is suddenly made to be the missing piece in the puzzle despite being an afterthought for most of the movie.

If the film is about Nick's search for Mae, that's fine, but that's not what happens. Everything is connected in one way or another. Names will come up in the final minutes that you haven't heard in nearly two hours, leaving you wondering how some of the different stories could even possibly be tied together. Even after rewinding and watching introductions to certain characters again, it's a struggle to figure out how their stories are intertwined. It's not just that things don't make sense, but those things also detract from the potentially interesting story that Joy is actually trying to tell.

It's hard not to applaud Joy's ambition with Reminiscence. She's swinging for the fences and trying to incorporate several different stories, themes, and sci-fi elements. Individually, all of those things are great, Joy just struggles to bring them all together in a cohesive fashion.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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Reminiscence arrives in theaters and on HBO Max on August 20th.