Nothing messes with a guy’s mind more than an unattainable woman.
1st-time director Lisa Joy has been steadily rising as a creative force in Hollywood. Best known as one of the showrunners for HBO’s Westworld, her work often tackles the thin line between perception, reality, and experience. In Reminiscence, her debut feature, she ponders if one can lead a healthy life if all of their happiness is derived from moments long since gone.
The setting is Miami, but in a future where global warming has ravaged the country. The waters have risen so high that the city is partially underwater. After the tides rose, there was a great war (there’s always a war), but it’s unclear who was fighting and over what. Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) was a soldier in that war. But he now spends his days back home, with his fellow veteran Watts (Thandie Newton) as the pair run a virtual reality business that allows patrons to visit any past memory that lays within their minds. Some want to visit past lovers or pets, and others want to uncover the whereabouts of lost objects.
When Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) walks into our protagonists’ office, decked out in a revealing gown, she says she needs to find a lost pair of keys, and her memory is the only way to find them. Nick is quickly smitten with the flirtatious Mae, and he uses her quest as a means for the two to become romantically linked. But what haunts Mae isn’t really a set of keys, and it will soon haunt Nick too.
What Reminiscence turns out to be is a homage to film noir. Nick is the stand-in for the stoic, hapless P.I., while Mae is the mysterious Femme Fatale with a dark past. However, while the archetypes are present, the film’s style is more in line with modern science fiction movies, and it’s a sci-fi story that has a grim outlook for our planet – society is hurdling towards demise, and yet the rich are still gaming what’s left of the world for their own benefit. At one point, the film mentions a wealthy entrepreneur who wanted to buy a piece of land cheaply – so he sunk the value by burning it to the ground. Most of the war veterans we meet are so psychologically scarred that they’ve become addicted to drugs, or to the past.
“Nostalgia’s become a way of life,” Nick mentions, and it’s what’s keeping his fledgling business alive. Nick himself keeps a journal of all the horror stories he’s heard from acquaintances or bore witness to. Watts is an alcoholic who laments her dead-end job and wants to move on to something greater. No wonder everyone wants to look backwards; the present is hell on earth. This current state of affairs gives context to Nick’s pursuit of Mae – she represents a way out, a pursuit of happiness that will free his troubled mind. But we discover that this ideal of Mae is just a fantasy, as she has her own baggage and demons. These are characters that have been warped by vices, trauma, and failing society.
What Joy is arguing here, is that the modern proliferation and industrial complex of nostalgia is damnation on our present and future. One character espouses, “If we just dwelled on the bad things in the past, we’d never get over them. And if we just dwelled on the good, we might never match it again.” The issue with nostalgia is it can either be comforting or disheartening, but both emotions are an enticing trap that prevents us from evolving our minds, pursuits, and dreams. And what better way to illustrate the damage of this arrested development, than showing the deteriorating psyche of a man that just can’t get over a girl?
However, the question that stuck with me during this film, as characters attempted to one-up each other on heady philosophy idioms as if they’re all in the same English Lit class, is if Reminiscence is too clinical and to cliche. Joy’s film is, often, so incredibly somber that it may become suffocating for viewers over the course of its 2-hour runtime. Yes, the cinematography is at times beautiful, and the performances are believable while Jackman has good chemistry with Ferguson and Newton. But the experience soon turns into a battle of two films – the tragic love story that says something melancholic about our relationship with the past, and the action crime-drama that takes us down a rabbit hole of convoluted writing and Miami drug culture. The former is more interesting because it’s more personal, and gives the characters greater emotional stakes. The latter provides answers to the mystery we were given, but the answers are not particularly interesting or unexpected.
Ultimately, I wanted to love Reminiscence, and I did for parts of the 1st hour. But Joy’s over-reliance on crime-drama tropes hurt its overall message. The experience is best described by the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, a story the movie name drops. The story is a tragedy, where due to random circumstances Eurydice dies before she and Orpheus can enjoy their lives together. The movie uses this story to illustrate that endings, by definition, are sad and so it is best to end the story in the middle, thus leaving the audience happy. Whether this edict is true is up for debate. But Reminiscence’s finale can be considered a happy ending or a sad one, depending on your perspective. But neither interpretation is as satisfying as we’d like – perhaps that was the point all along.