There isn’t a Christopher Nolan movie on the docket this year, but if you squint a little you can see the new Warner Bros. blockbuster Reminiscence as an extension of the auteur’s sensibilities. As the camera sweeps over Miami’s flooded cityscape in the film’s opening sequence, Hugh Jackman’s protagonist begins a droning voice-over narration about memory, love, loss, and regret. “The past can haunt a man,” he says, “but maybe it’s us who haunt the past.” While Nolan hasn’t been, in the cinematic parlance of his mind-bending megahit, incepted out of a sequel, the allusions to his movie are hard to miss, and perhaps to be expected: Reminiscence writer-director Lisa Joy not only cocreated HBO’s Westworld with Christopher’s brother, Jonathan Nolan, but she’s also married to him.
I shudder to think how many Nolan-Joy Thanksgiving dinners devolve into discussions about the nature of free will or the construct of linear time, but such preoccupations make for compelling entertainment under the right conditions. While Westworld has become more aimless and convoluted with each season, it doesn’t take away from the juiciness of its original premise, the thrill of the initial robot uprising, and the joy of Anthony Hopkins chewing scenery as only a god-tier thespian can. (The piano covers were always a bit much, though.) But since Westworld did fall off the rails, suggesting its brand of mystery-box storytelling isn’t sustainable over multiple seasons, the hope was that, as a feature film, Reminiscence would play more to its cocreator’s strengths. It seems harder to get lost in the narrative maze in under two hours.
Moving away from Westworld’s philosophical ponderings on determinism, Reminiscence explores the landscape of the mind. What separates it from a movie like Inception is that Joy’s film is concerned with memories rather than dreams. In Reminiscence’s dystopian future, climate change has ravaged coastal cities, and it’s so unbearably hot during the day that citizens typically work and socialize during the evening. With the present so bleak, people look for comfort in the past through a machine called the Reminiscence. Once attached to the Reminiscence in a water tank, similar to the Precogs in Minority Report, a person can re-live their old memories with an eerie authenticity that feels like it’s unfolding in the present. In essence, nostalgia has become a more literal product.
Jackman’s protagonist, Nick Bannister, specializes in guiding clients through their past with the help of his snarky work partner Watts (Thandiwe Newton), whom he served alongside during the vaguely explained “border wars” instigated by the planet’s rising sea levels. But Nick’s world changes when an alluring woman, Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), shows up to his office needing to remember where she misplaced her keys. That mundane meet-cute leads to a monthslong relationship—one that abruptly ends when Mae disappears. Nick searches in both the real world and his own memories for answers about a person he realizes he barely knew.
As Nick goes into full amateur sleuth mode while navigating Miami’s seedy underbelly, Reminiscence channels the sci-fi noir spirit of Blade Runner—for a film that turns nostalgia into a cynical product, it’s certainly guilty of exploiting that feeling. And though Reminiscence’s writer-director is responsible for creating one of the most purposefully confusing shows on television, the movie’s biggest twist might be that its central mystery isn’t particularly complex or engaging. Once a subplot about the inheritance of a recently deceased land baron is shoehorned in, it’s easy to connect the dots with Mae’s disappearance. Even as Joy’s movie aspires to be Diet Nolan, the plot contrivances of Reminiscence fails to leave a lasting memory.
As for the memories themselves, they’re so easily accessible that Nick has a side hustle working for the local DA using the Reminiscence to interrogate clients. But the implication that the memories are accurate enough to be used in court goes against the fallibility of human nature. The memories are projected through a hologram that captures the tiniest details that the human mind shouldn’t be capable of remembering. In other words, memories are treated more like conclusive data stored in a hard drive, not shifting, bias-influenced recollections that erode over time. It’s a cold, robotic perspective that has the same shortcomings that have followed Christopher Nolan’s career: the sense that the characters in his movies often don’t behave like human beings would.
Nolan, of course, has endured as one of the few modern filmmakers making blockbusters based on original ideas—he’s so adept at creating spectacular imagery and thought-provoking concepts that it’s easy to overlook such flaws. (The rare instance in which Nolan let one of his films be guided by emotion rather than calculated logic resulted in some of the worst reviews of his career—just a reminder that Interstellar is an underappreciated masterpiece.) On Joy’s part, Reminiscence has some interesting ideas that fade into the background for the half-baked mystery-romance between its underdeveloped leads, and it’s a shame the film’s world-building wasn’t given more weight.
The climate-change-induced dystopia has the kind of sociopolitical resonance that speaks for itself, as does the fact that the 1 percenters in Reminiscence amass fortified land while the working class fend for themselves near the ocean’s edge. Vistas of flooded Miami are afforded some genuinely breathtaking set pieces, including a fight scene in a submerged hotel lobby that has an ethereal beauty to it. What’s more, the film’s underwater sequences were shot practically, an admirable flourish in a blockbuster landscape that increasingly leans on special effects as much as pre-established IP.
If Reminiscence makes the viewer nostalgic for anything—besides Blade Runner and Nolan’s filmography—it’d be for a time when original tentpoles weren’t rare enough that their very existence needs to be commended. But while Joy’s feature film debut is an ambitious sci-fi noir that takes big swings, not all of them connect, and the nostalgia it generates for superior works of pop culture acts as a double-edged sword. To paraphrase Reminiscence’s perpetually gloomy protagonist: Sometimes, the past can haunt a movie.