It’s one of those incredible Alanis Morrisette ironies that makers behind Reminiscence bank on their audience having short memories. After all, they brazenly hide the influence of so many better movies in plain sight: Even a casual sci-fi nerd will spot Total Recall, Minority Report, Westworld, Strange Days, The Matrix, Inception, A.I., and Memento lurking in the shadows of this sprawling, expensive production. Dip further back into cinematic history, and you’ll see how much Reminiscence riffs on vintage film noir, lifting both style and attitude from Double Indemnity, Key Largo, and even Hitchcock’s Suspicion. In another irony, this is a film with epic aspirations–the only problem is that they all belong to other movies.
The infringement starts early, as Hugh Jackman’s drowsy, mopey narration creeps into the speakers. This feels so much like an old Sam Spade movie you can practically hear the lonely whine of a trumpet on the soundtrack. Actually, Jackman’s Nick Bannister feels like a hybrid of Bogart’s two biggest roles: He has the cool resourcefulness of Spade, but also the lovestung cynicism of Casablanca‘s Rick Blaine.
Also like Blaine, Bannister looks at a broken world and finds a way to profit from it: In the near-future, global warming has drenched coastal cities in dingy tidewaters. Things are so bleak, most people just want to bask in the memories of better times. Accordingly, Bannister and his colleague Watts (Thandiwe Newton) run a business that allows their customers to sink into some kind of neural hot tub and travel back into their own minds. They relive their best moments, down to every sensation. To put it simply, Bannister and Watts deal in reheated happiness.
This ethically shaky enterprise hums right along, until a mysterious woman comes calling after hours. Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) is a beautiful lounge singer who simply wants to find a missing set of keys. Bannister obliges, and everyone seems to go about their business. The only problem? It turns out that Mae harbors a host of secrets and deep emotional scars. Because, you know, of course she does. Bannister gets drawn into her mystery, and the two begin a tempestuous relationship.
His world gets rocked when Mae goes missing. This disaster sends Bannister racing in two counterproductive directions: He spends hours in his own dream tank, reliving every romantic moment he shared with Mae. At the same time, Bannister has to tear away from the past long enough to figure out what happened to Mae, who may’ve taken her, and why.
And that’s all the plot I’m gonna give you. For better or worse, Reminiscence twists and bends along for nearly two hours, and I don’t want to spoil any of it. I’ll just say that this movie isn’t terribly predictable, but you may not care about the surprises when the script chucks them at you.
That’s strange to say, because Reminiscence feels like a film of potential. The first fifth of the 21st Century has settled into a grim grayness, and technology does offer the temptation of a spiritually empty escape from it all: The forests are burning, the seas are boiling, the corona-bats are killing us all, but everything looks great in Farmville! The idea that terrible times make us retreat within ourselves is the most resonant about Reminiscence, and I really wished they’d ran with it more.
Unfortunately, the movie bogs down in its own neo-noir jungle. The second half of the script is a slog of subplots, betrayals, and undercooked characters that all add up to a wholly unsatisfying conclusion. Even at 116 minutes, Reminiscence feels like way too much movie.
It’s a shame, too. Jackman is one of the most likable superstars in the business: He can be humble, relatable, and an all-around badass within the span of a single scene. He somehow brings deep conviction to a man stuck between past and present, love and grief, and he elevates every scene through sheer force of talent. Jackman and Newton spark some genuine chemistry, but the filmmakers squander that, as well.
That’s the biggest problem in Reminiscence: It spends so long showing off how clever its sources are, that the film never figures out how to stand on its own merit. Writer-director Lisa Joy (who co-produces with husband Jonathan Nolan) deserves some credit for even attempting such a massive endeavor. She delivers some truly remarkable visuals that pop up like small pockets of self-contained brilliance. At the same time, Reminiscence is one of those confounding movies that will only make you want to rent better ones.
116 min. PG-13. HBOMax.