Lisa Joy’s “Reminiscence” (2021)

Lisa Joy’s Reminiscence (2021)

By: Maor Goihberg

I am often one to seek the surreal in the every day; that is when my subconscious is unlocked and I find the strange in ordinary places. Such was the case last August when I ventured to see a new science-fiction film at Regal Fenway. The sun was so strong that I was forced to take the D-Line, and the streets so empty at noon, even for a weekday, that I felt… wrong being there. 

But none of that compared to being inside the empty theater. I had been back by that point a few times with my friends, but even in those screenings, there were still a few other people among the rows. So it was quite disconcerting to be the only one watching the trailers. But this appeared to have been the right film for the right time, as the opening shot of Lisa Joy’s Reminiscence immediately brought me into its world, somehow channeling my anxiety with a sense of forwarding motion into a darkening city. 

The world of this film is mainly that of Miami in the near future. Climate change has flooded the streets, and the scorching sun has made daytime too inhospitable for the general population, rendering them nocturnal. Amidst the social decay, people search for an outlet, or rather an escape, from where our hero Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) earns his living by operating the “Reminiscence Machine,” guiding customers towards happy memories buried among the rest. 

One night (or morning, rather) when Bannister and his old buddy Emily (Thandie Newton) are about to close up when Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) shows up, needing to look for her lost keys. Suffice it to say, Nick falls hard and fast, not least due to a detour to a memory of hers singing at a nightclub. But all of that is revealed to have been a dream, a memory Nick now regularly relives in the machine since Mae unexpectedly disappeared. All that changes when, on a routine investigation for the D.A. into the memories of a comatose criminal, Nick discovers Mae—but not how he remembered her.

Jackman is very good in the role, drawing on old Hollywood archetypes without being bogged down in homage, and showing the same degree of sensitivity he managed to instill in the Wolverine character in such outings as Logan. I believe Joy made a wise choice in depicting their relationship before shifting to the present, rather than following the more conventional model of beginning in the present and then flashing back so that he comes off sympathetic rather than obsessive. Newton is equally affective as Nick’s friend, especially in those moments of past regret and unfortunate premonition; and Ferguson completely captures the femme fatale nature of her character, navigating some tricky dialogue and engaging with some subtly expressive body language.

The mystery is well-crafted: like in any film noir, the investigation draws a portrait of the city, from the (almost real) depths of market stalls and dive bars to the land barons who built themselves a private, dammed-off paradise. Clues, misdirections, more than one near-death incident—everything one could want from a decent yarn.

The way in which the film depicts memories is quite interesting: whereas in an older model of the machine memories can only be viewed from the subject’s literal point-of-view, the more advanced model allows the subject to project themselves within the simulation. While the former may be more technically correct, I find that it is the latter that resonates more; after all, how do we experience the world every day, if not at least partially by thinking of ourselves within the space we inhabit?  

Lisa Joy is well-known for her work on the science-fiction series Westworld, which similarly depicts a society hungering for the past; in that case, it was the Old West (among other fictionalized eras of history) where wealthy guests go to gratify themselves and their fantasies. But in this alternate world, Joy depicts us as retreating into ourselves, the memories that we choose to remember so that we have fewer which we’d like to forget. 

Fans of Westworld would certainly be familiar with Joy’s command of action sequences. But whereas that series featured a great deal of blood and gore, here Joy demonstrates a maturity, restraining those instincts and packing more power into fewer punches, a sense of economy too rare in the current landscape. Joy also has a good sense of fluidity, in that the actors move naturalistically alongside the camera, making it a participant rather than an observer. It’s simply beautiful to look at, too, thanks to some great VFX work. 

The film is not perfect: Joy’s dialogue can sometimes lean towards corny, and the ending did not leave me completely satisfied. But this is still a great science-fiction film that, in this writer’s opinion, was misunderstood upon release and will, hopefully, be remembered in a more favorable light. 


Reminiscence is available to stream on HBO Max.

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