Review: Reminiscence isn’t really worth looking back on

There must be some sort of terrible Nolan virus Christopher and brother Jonathan have spread. First there was Chris’s longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister’s Transcendence in 2014, and now, seven years later, we have another incredibly Nolan-adjacent, “ence”-suffixed, high-concept sci-fi feature with Reminiscence. And, like Transcendence, it is incredibly stupid with its Nolanfection.

The feature writing-directing debut of Jonathan Nolan wife and Westworld co-creator Lisa Joy is so artlessly Nolan-y that it nears satire (in more ways than one, ultimately). All the weirdly-recurring Nolan themes of memory, time, dreams, collapsing buildings, vast pools of water, a wife-figure falling, and handsomes in suits are there—and they’re all just as thoroughly misunderstood with forced emotion as usual.

Hugh Jackman stars in what’s presented as a P.I. role but in no way actually is. He’s a “private investigator of the mind,” which ends up being a job more akin to the laziest therapist ever. Jackman’s Nick Bannister calls himself an “oarsman” through the memory stream of a person’s consciousness, but 90% of his job is saying, “You’re going on a journey—a journey through memory.” It’s so perfunctory that he literally just records himself saying that phrase to guide himself through his own memory adventure. His investigative work means putting a little bathcap on a person, saying his catchphrase, and gazing as his clients relive their hazy past. A hologram thing projects the memories to him and us, the viewers—and if you’re wondering why the memories are in third-person, don’t worry, because there’s a whole drawn-out scene to lampshade that for no reason. (That a later memory is inexplicably in first-person is never addressed.)

In its first half-hour, Reminiscence very nearly makes a case for itself as a futurist hardboiled detective pastiche—a winking Blade Runner set in what’s oddly both a more distant and closer future. It looks almost entirely shot on green-screens, and its artifice almost hearkens back to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow’s glamorization of the pulp of the ‘20s-’40s. But, like its exceedingly Nolan-y vision of buildings giving way to the sea, that façade fairly quickly falls apart.

True to his over-the-top noir homage, Bannister frequently speaks in some of the most glib voiceover imaginable. It’s insulting gobbledygook masquerading as profundity about the nature of memory, and basically none of it holds up given even the faintest thought. The general plot follows suit in its pastiche of a parody to see a smokin’ dame—a lounge singer, no less!—arrive at Bannister’s office, get him dreamin’ about those gams, and disappear, leaving our hard drinkin’, strangely-ripped detective to figure out what happened.

As a willfully-derivative cartoon, it sort of works! Until it doesn’t.

Well before Reminiscence’s midpoint, it becomes clear that Joy indeed has caught the Nolan flu. This thing is not self-aware; it is not clever. It is yet another Nolan exploration of a single Big Conceit that has hardly been thought-out and certainly has no clear message. WHAT IF YOUR MEMORY WAS CONSTANTLY ERASING ITSELF? WHAT IF YOU COULD ENTER DREAMS? All these rhetorical Nolan questions inevitably lead to the same answer: a good-looking guy in a suit would end up in an action movie about his dead wife-figure. Even working in borderline parody, the brand is hollower than a Scary Movie.

The one thing Joy does add to the Nolan brand is social commentary that’s equally as half-assed as the boys’ usual themes. Set in a flooded Miami of the near future, Reminiscence touches on issues of the climate crisis, greedy landlords, and internment camps. Sure, like with its views on memory and everything else, it doesn’t have a lot to say about them, but those are issues, right?

With her script, Joy quite literally and repeatedly begs for comparison to the ancient legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. That tale sees Orpheus fall in love with Eurydice just before she dies, sending him into Hades to find her; he’s told not to look back when retrieving her but does anyway, losing her in the process.

In relation to the movie, that… sort of works? And that basically goes for the movie as a whole as well. It almost works as a noir simulacrum but then it doesn’t, because it isn’t. It isn’t a tribute to Philip Marlowe, nor is it the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. It’s more a tribute to Mute—another sci-fi disaster that leans into neo-noir just because that seems cool. And its story is not of Orpheus and Eurydice but of Jonathan and Lisa. Yet it is a tragedy. With Reminiscence, Lisa Joy makes clear she is doomed to the Hell of being stuck in a dream where she’ll fall off a cliff face into the ocean as the Nolan boys look on, emotionless, ignoring her as their hivemind considers whether Billy Ocean’s “Get Outta My Dreams, Get into My Car” is a good premise for their next needless action venture. It’s a movie as hard to watch more than once as it is to likewise speak of in plural:

Grade: C-

Director: Lisa Joy
Studio: Warner Bros.
Runtime: 116 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson, Thandiwe Newton, Cliff Curtis

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