Reminiscence (2021)

I watched Reminiscence on the Friday night before Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana, knocking out our power & internet service for weeks.  In any other context, the film might have landed as low-key escapist entertainment, but that particular weekend afforded it an eerie magnetic pull on my attention.  A sci-fi noir starring Hugh Jackman & Rebecca Ferguson as its incongruously gorgeous leads, Reminiscence splits its time between near-future Miami & New Orleans.  Both fictionalized versions of those cities are decorated with constant street flooding, like a modernized urban version of Vienna.  It’s like a Gulf South remake of Chinatown where there’s too much water instead of too little, a stomach-turning preview of what Climate Change will inevitably do to my beloved home city, likely within my lifetime. 

Maybe I wouldn’t have watched Reminiscence in the lead-up to a hurricane had I known about that submerged urban setting, but I’m glad I did.  It’s a surprisingly solid movie, especially considering its ice-cold reception in theaters.  Jackman stars as the owner & operator of a machine that tricks the human brain into reliving & re-experiencing memory in full sensory detail.  It was created as an interrogation tactic for police investigations, but over time became a commercial form of therapy for post-apocalypse urbanites, then a form of dwelling-on-the-past addiction.  His business gets by okay until he is hired by a mysterious femme fatale (Ferguson), who hires him to help remember where she lost her keys . . . which of course leads him to becoming entangled in a larger, lethal political conspiracy.  Luckily his partner in time (Thandiwe Newton) has his back, since he’s in way over his head, especially once he falls in love with his mysterious client . . . or at least his selective memory of her.

The biggest hurdle for most audiences to enjoy Reminiscence is going to be its shamelessness in collecting every possible trope of classic noir in its modern action sci-fi shell.  You pretty much know exactly where the film is going at all times, even if its scrambled timeline & false-memory rug-pulls confuses the path it takes to get there.  Beyond that predictability, its broad-strokes noir homage overextends itself to the point of parody in Jackman’s constant, overbearing narration, where he gruffly whispers things like “Time is no longer a one-way stream.  Memory is the boat that sails against the current,” and “Memories are just beads on the necklace of time.”  I’m going to choose to believe that the film knows how funny & outdated these overwritten turns of phrase are, the same way that a lot of classic noir could be darkly hilarious & absurdly wordy in its own day.  I half-expected Jackman to complain, “Of all the memory joints in all of Sunken City, this dame walks into mine”, but that sadly never came to be.  I wonder if the film might’ve been more immediately popular if its humor was more readily recognizable & self-aware, but I’m glad it plays it straight.  It’s funnier that way, intentional or not.

If Reminiscence feels overly familiar, it’s not necessarily because it’s paying homage to vintage 1930s noir; it’s because its exact style of homage was already hammered to death in big-budget sci-fi of the late 1990s.  Titles like Strange Days, Dark City, The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor, and Gattaca have already tread this exact ground before, although maybe not with as much (suspiciously clear) water flooding their urban settings.  And even all of those movies owe a recognizable debt to Blade Runner‘s visionary estimation of sci-fi noir in the 1980s, putting yet another been-there-seen-that barrier between this genre-mashup and its 1930s source of inspiration.  Luckily, genre movies don’t have to be The First or The Best to be worthwhile; they just have to be memorably entertaining on their own terms.  I can pretty confidently say I’ll remember the experience of watching Reminiscence for a long time coming, if not only because the hurricane flooding that hit Louisiana that weekend echoed a lot of the imagery of the submerged New Orleans onscreen.

-Brandon Ledet

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