‘Reminiscence’ movie review: Hugh Jackman wades through the washed out future


Chinatown meets Waterworld in the offbeat, retro-futuristic detective story Reminiscence, which is the best kind of bad movie: a big-budget spectacle that represents the work of a singular vision rather than a Hollywood committee, but makes head-scratching wrong decisions at every turn.

This one is hard to peg: weird and wonderful in many aspects but a dreadful slog to sit through, Reminiscence will linger in the mind a lot longer than the average summer blockbuster, but the memories may not be pleasant. Best comparison: the Akiva Goldsman fantasy misfire Winter’s Tale, starring Colin Farrell.

The visionary filmmaker behind Reminiscence is Westworld showrunner Lisa Joy, wife of Jonathan Nolan (who serves as producer here) and sister-in-law of Christopher Nolan. Comparisons to the work of the latter, especially Inception, have already been made, but the world Joy creates here is wholly unique, and seizes our attention from the opening frames.

That world is a flooded Miami of both the past and future, where most of the city has vanished under water. But this Miami never got out of the 1950s, and the characters wade through neon-lit city streets to get to seamy nightclubs with lounge singers in ankle-length red dresses, gothic police stations lit through venetian blinds and impossibly slow-moving fans, and other detective movie tropes that were already stale cliches when The Maltese Falcon released in 1941.

The result is a striking and evocative visual experience reminiscent of the BioShock series of video games, and would make a striking backdrop for an original story that really utilized this world. The narrative Reminiscence actually delivers, meanwhile, is a stale detective story even more outdated than its visual tropes.

Reminiscence stars Hugh Jackman stars as Nick Bannister, a low-rent nostalgia salesman who talks clients on trips to their past through his memory device: half a watery sensory deprivation pod with a Clockwork Orange helmet.

Thandiwe Newton is Nick’s sidekick Watts; both served in the vaguely-detailed flood wars, during which the memory pod served as an interrogation chamber. Now, addicts are happy to fork over some dough to be transported back to happier times; there’s a pointed parallel to be made here to modern film, but Reminiscence gets lost in its noir nostalgic world on the way to delivering it.

And then Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) saunters into the picture: she drops in after hours trying to remember where she left her keys (really), wins Nick’s heart, and then disappears from the movie as Nick simultaneously tries to track her down and relive their brief past through his memory machine.

Jackman and Ferguson share a steamy scene of fleeting romance and a brief story of Orpheus and Eurydice (with a happy ending, this time), but then they’re separated for the rest of the movie as Nick wades through denizens of mobsters, street toughs, corrupt cops, city officials, and other assorted walking cliches.

Much of Reminiscence is a slog: we know exactly where this is going and don’t particularly care for these characters, who represent film noir archetypes rather than real people; only Newton’s character manages to briefly feel lived-in, though she’s largely irrelevant to the plot.

But Reminiscence has two legitimately great moments where genuine filmmaking craft coincides with the storytelling and almost makes it all worthwhile: an extended and impressively-choreographed fight scene between Jackman and a crooked cop played by Cliff Curtis that climaxes with a piano dropping the characters into the briny depths, and a moment in which one character knowingly speaks through another and forward in time via the memory machine.

We see the memories come to life in Nick’s device in third person, because, as he explains, when we think back we see ourselves from the outside. But then, in the very next scene, we see a lengthy memory recreated in first-person. Later in the movie, Newton’s character steps into the memory machine to witness something she never saw in the first place. Huh?

It’s safe to say that Reminiscence isn’t concerned with such minor logical details such as these. But then, at the end of the movie, Nick whips out a cell phone to bust the bad guy and blows us away: not only has the movie, until now, taken place in a kind of flooded 1950 without a hint of modern devices (save for the memory machines), but the mere existence of this kind of technology renders the movie we have just watched absurd.

Reminiscence is filled with moments like these, and while it clearly doesn’t work as intended it nevertheless a fascinating failure. Opening this weekend to mixed and muted reviews worldwide, Reminiscence is both better and worse than you could possibly expect.



Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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