Opening Thursday night in theaters and debuting Friday morning on HBO Max, Reminiscence is the latest in Warner Bros.’ heroic attempt to both remain a regular/old-school movie studio and to continually offer the kind of old-school “movie-movies” that were once the bread and butter of a vibrant theatrical film industry. It is an original sci-fi film, rooted in a strong “What if?” hook and anchored by glamorous movie stars acting out pulpy film noir detective storytelling. That it is a big-budget original fantasy written and directed by Lisa Joy (a… gasp… female filmmaker) is icing on the “what we say we want” cake, which makes its likely commercial doom all the more frustrating. The film is about the ability to revisit moments of your own past, to replay your own memories. Reminiscence made me want to revisit a time when a film like this might have been a hit.
Set in a future where climate change has led to worldwide war and global flooding, Reminiscence concerns a veteran (Hugh Jackman) who has become a kind of “private eye of the mind,” using technology developed to interrogate prisoners to delve into peoples’ memories. For a fee, you can revisit a memory, be it for nostalgic pleasure or for figuring out where you left your car keys. The business isn’t exactly booming, which is why Nick Bannister and Watts (Thandiwe Newton) moonlight for the Miami Dade prosecutors office. As Nick would say (and the kids from Ready Player One would second), it’s easy to get fixated on the past when there’s nothing to look forward to in the future. Anyway, in walks a mysterious lounge singer (Rebecca Ferguson) looking for her lost car keys, quickie job that leads to a romantic entanglement and (after she mysteriously vanishes) obsessive investigation.
The “What happened to Mae?” plot takes Nick to various corners of his city, while interacting with various criminal elements of high and low status. There is a distinct pleasure in seeing how this original fantasy both lays out the rules and caveats of its non-IP mythology and how its old-school mystery unravels in a logical and precise fashion. The film runs a tight 116 minutes, and it offers a variety of action beats (a terrific shoot-out in act one, a waterlogged chase in act two, etc.) amid its engrossing dialogue beats. While Jackman still *looks* relatively young, he moves and fights like a 52-year-old man who was never good at the fisticuffs (it’s implied that he was good at defusing violent conflicts back in his war days). And, yeah, in non-yellow highlighter fashion, it has much to say about the lure of nostalgia even in a world gone to hell.
None of this will reinvent the wheel. The “you can travel into your own memories” hook is a gimmick with which to enhance a pretty conventional hardboiled detective story. Likewise, the film’s post-climate change setting offers glorious visuals of a flooded American city (folks use paddle boats to travel where streets once stood above water) but are mostly seasoning for what otherwise would have been a much cheaper flick. Still, commercial considerations aside, the film’s over/under $70 million budget is absolutely on the screen. This is a big movie that looks truly big (kudos to Paul Cameron) in that way (multiple distinct locations, copious speaking parts, a big-screen sensibility) which we took for granted before the streaming era. Both locale and the sci-fi gimmick play crucial and satisfying roles in the narrative’s eventual outcome. If you can and are willing to venture out to a theater, I’d suggest you do so.
Reminiscence features real movie stars (Ferguson and Jackman are both ridiculously good-looking and actually get to have an adult romantic relationship) and character actors (among them Cliff Curtis and Daniel Wu) in a visually scrumptious biggie aimed at adults (it’s only PG-13 by virtue of not drowning in carnage or hard profanity). We get good actors playing scenes and having interesting conversations about interesting subject matter. The film’s memory hole fantasy is used to enrich an otherwise standard noir tale and its stock characters. There is a confidence and competence on display, both behind and in front of the camera, that makes Reminiscence a genuinely engrossing old-school movie. Would the folks who will likely ignore this one in theaters or on HBO Max would have otherwise shown up if it were a padded-out-to-six-episodes HBO miniseries? “This miniseries could have been a movie.” is the new “This meeting could have been an email.”