“The past can haunt a man. That’s what they say.” Nick Bannister’s (Hugh Jackman) opening narration in “Reminiscence,” and his voiceovers throughout the remainder of the film, calls to mind classic films noir in which the hardened protagonist wearily dictates his thoughts, feelings, and ruminations on morality. But “Reminiscence” never does more than remind us of those previous, better movies. It’s a frustrating film to watch, mostly because the potential greatness is visible on the periphery throughout the entire runtime. The feature directorial debut of “Westworld” co-creator Lisa Joy (who also wrote the film) is a tantalizing mix of sci-fi and noir elements, but the story neglects its more fascinating elements in favor of a fairly standard romantic mystery that’s immediately forgettable.
In “Reminiscence,” rising sea levels and war have ravaged the world. A nostalgia drug developed for interrogating individuals is now used recreationally, allowing people to retreat from their bleak reality and revisit their best memories over and over again. Nick, along with his friend Watts (Thandiwe Newton), runs a business selling the past to people using this technology, in which the person dons a headset and lays down in a water tank, the memories they are visiting projected in a hologram for those in the room to view and record. One evening, in walks Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), a beautiful singer who needs help remembering what she did with her keys. Nick appears instantly captivated by her, but in a twist, we find that this is not their first encounter in reality; Nick has had a brief romance with Mae, but she suddenly disappeared, and he is the one in the tank, retreating into the past to try to find her.
Despite an overall promising start and an intriguing premise, “Reminiscence” lacks the ambition required to make it impactful. Visually, there are some beautiful atmospheric moments, from the smoky, dimly lit lounges where Mae sings, to her apartment, where the warm sun streams in through the curtains and the steadily spinning fans help indicate the perpetual Miami heat, to the boats that drift throughout the city in lieu of cars, where the streets and the shore have sunken under the ocean and nature and man-made structures start to merge. And the way that the opening scenes play with chronology keeps the viewer on their toes for the rest of the film. But the world-building just isn’t there. We never get more than an allusion to how the world got the way it was (even though we all know it’s gotta be climate change), or the war that appears to have affected so many people and taken the lives of others. Jackman and Ferguson fail to sell the attraction between their characters that is the driving force for Nick throughout the film; Newton is the real standout in the cast, getting to use her talents as an action star in some of the fight scenes later in the film when things finally start to get exciting, and serving up the most genuine emotion as she is caught between helping Nick find Mae and trying to keep him grounded in reality.
As a neo-noir throwback, “Reminiscence” does work on some level, but the mystery runs out of mileage the longer it goes on, and the ending, which affirms that living in the past is preferable to sticking it out in the present, feels a bit too defeatist, even by noir standards. I hope that Lisa Joy gets another stab at directing a feature in the near future though; it’s nice to see a woman getting a big budget to make sub-par studio fare for a change.
“Reminiscence” is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max until September 19. Runtime: 115 minutes. Rated PG-13.