Remember “Inception?” Over a decade ago, Christopher Nolan’s science fiction masterpiece surged into theaters to dazzle us with its unique premise, mind-bending plot and fantastical visuals. Well, writer-director Lisa Joy really hopes you remember “Inception” because she sure did when she made “Reminiscence.” Released in theaters and streaming on HBO Max, “Reminiscence” reeks of “Inception” nostalgia jacking, its trailer proudly displaying a wave-battered city in ruins, slow motion dream-like imagery and Hugh Jackman rumbling Nolan-esque “deep” dialogue. It is exceedingly easy, by design, to assume that “Reminiscence” is an Inception clone, except with a memory machine instead of a dream machine, desperately gnawing at the ankles of its predecessor long after Nolan’s epic has already walked off into the sunset. Having actually watched “Reminiscence,” I must admit that its similarities to Inception are more a varnish than anything else, strategic set dressing meant to bait rather than being a bootleg to its core. Despite its obnoxiously flaunted influences, “Reminiscence” is its own movie, a neo-noir science fiction thriller filled with money, love, and death. However, looking back, I wonder if “Reminiscence” wouldn’t have profited more off of being the rip-off of “Inception” that everyone assumed it would be, because if it had, maybe some good writing might have rubbed off on it.
“Reminiscence” takes place in a Miami of the not-to-distant future, after sea levels have risen to drown most of the coast. After the country was wracked by a series of nondescript wars, the uber-rich have bought up most of the remaining dry land, leaving the poor to make due amidst the drowning ruins of the old city. In a world as bleak as this, Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) and his partner Watts (Thandiwe Newton) make a living running a Reminiscence machine, a device that allows people to realistically relive their happy memories from better times. After Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), a client of Nicks and the love of his life, vanishes without a trace, Nick and Watts use the Reminiscence machine to search the city and their own memories to find her. On their quest, they begin to uncover a vast conspiracy at the heart of the city and horrible truths about the kind of woman Mae might have been in a neo-noir adventure that is played woefully straight.
The plot of this film is utterly detached from its sci-fi setting, with the mystery so unimaginative that it could have taken place in L.A. in the ‘50s, or New York in the present, and work as well as it does in future Miami. The crime has nothing to do with the rising sea levels, the unrest of the lower classes, the drugs that ravage the masses, the corruption of the police, or the oppression of the rich. The first half of the movie is spent setting up a world that the second half of the film is aggressively uninterested in. The mystery barely has anything to do with Mae herself, let alone Nick and Watts, so unengaging and uncreative that it comes off like the flat styrofoam floor model used to advertise the noir genre in general.
One of this film’s more egregious crimes is that it entirely ignores its main gimmick, the Reminiscence machine itself. In better sci-fi noir stories, the technology that sets the world apart is also at the center of the crime being investigated. For example, in Netflix’s “Altered Carbon,” the rich are able to download their minds into a device called a cortical stack, allowing them to transfer their consciousnesses between bodies so they can live forever. In the first season, the main character is hired by a wealthy man to investigate his own murder, after he was assassinated and came back in a new body, and the mystery that follows is chock full of body-switching, cloning, mind infiltration and resurrection, all while maintaining a noir taste. By comparison, “Reminiscence” retches at the thought of having fun with its premise. The most done with the ability to relive memories is a couple of cool-ish transitions where the scene we were just watching was just a past event being revisited and some interesting side effects of using the Reminiscence machine too much. Unfortunately, these gimmick explorations never rise past the level of ‘neat’ and the Reminiscence machine mostly just takes the place of really good CCTV that Nick uses to look for clues, by far the least creative exploitation of such a whimsical device.
I am of the firm belief that even the most vapid, dull, sinking ship of a story can be sailed safely to shore by a crew of good characters. Unfortunately for “Reminiscence,” Hugh Jackman is a vacuous, howling trench of charisma in this movie. It is astounding how little “Reminiscence” makes you care about Jackman’s character, coming off as a boring, whiney, weepy, obsessive weirdo throughout the entire picture. This isn’t helped by Jackman’s omnipresent noir narration, droning on across the movie in speeches so drowsy and written that it leaps over the border into parody. It is fitting then that Nick falls in love with Ferguson’s Mae, a mannequin love interest with all the passion of a text-to-speech app. Given the sparse screen time actually devoted to Nick and Mae’s relationship before she disappears and how said relationship amounts to “man + woman + breathy whispering + sex = whirlwind romance” it is a mental exercise trying to care about Nick’s search for her. And all the while, the character of Watts is standing off to the side with an actually compelling backstory and arc and Thandiwe Newton’s indelible charm, punctuating the desiccated husk that is the film’s story. The irony of “Reminiscence” being so forgettable seems almost purposeful, and what’s tragic is that it really could have been so much more. If the movie had integrated its sci-fi world into its neo-noir story and embraced its characters then it could have been a halfway creative revival of noir cliches in a fantastical setting. But I guess Lisa Joy found that task to be too much effort, and if a film can’t be bothered with caring about itself, why should anyone be bothered with watching it?