Nothing is more addictive than the past.
There’s a lot to like about Lisa Joy‘s feature debut Reminiscence—the least of which is its premise of memories as a drug. The concept itself isn’t a unique one, but that truth renders it no less alluring in its potential. Because while official use of extraction pods for deposition purposes is nuts and bolts generic, recreational use in a semi-post-apocalyptic world wherein customers can relive their happiest moments from the past and escape the harsh reality of the present has a certain romance to it. Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) facilitates both when he can bring himself to wake up on time and provide DA Avery Castillo (Natalie Martinez) something useful for her to approve the invoice that gets him paid. He’d rather service the broken seeking reprieve.
What’s more intriguing is the world itself. I say semi-post-apocalyptic because extinction remains on the horizon. Joy doesn’t get into details—there’s only so much exposition you can supply in under two hours when the plot atop that world is more important than its own origins—but we glean that climate change caused disaster (the waters rose to flood most cities if not sink them) and disaster caused war. Bannister and his trusted assistant (Thandiwe Newton‘s Watts) served together in that fight and maybe aren’t so proud of the side they fought on considering the number of characters who speak of internment camps and the discovery that the rich have isolated themselves in “drylands” to head down a road that we presume might lead to The Hunger Games.
The pain left behind is where the best part arises because Bannister and Watts are both as broken as the former’s favorite regular clients (such as Javier Molina‘s paraplegic Hank and Angela Sarafyan‘s lovelorn Elsa). Nick has lost himself in the memories of those he’s “interrogated” and Watts lost herself in the bottle—and neither calls the other out on the reasons why considering they more or less know from their own experiences. I’ll let the film handle her evolution as it occurs on the periphery (although proves no less potent) and focus on his as it revolves around the enigmatic Mae (Rebecca Ferguson). She came into their business hoping to remember where she lost her keys and left with Bannister’s heart. After some happy months, she vanishes.
Bannister’s drug of choice therefore becomes his own memory tank to simultaneously relive those blissful days with Mae and search for clues to tell him where she’s gone. It’s an affecting love story that inevitably brings up old emotional wounds to go along with his limp as he finds himself self-sabotaging his work in the process. That it takes a huge coincidence to acquire his first lead isn’t so egregious on its own, but where it ultimately takes us is due to how bland the quasi-film-noir mystery feels in comparison to the love story that’s forced to take a backseat as a result. None of it is surprising (you don’t introduce a character like Brett Cullen‘s real estate baron Sylvan without reason). All of it is overwrought.
The reason I mentioned there was a lot to like about Reminiscence is thus because of how easy we can forget it all in the face of what’s actually propelling the story forward. We want it to be the romance because Joy has made Bannister and Mae’s love compelling in its whirlwind and complex in its secrets. There’s something to this character finally having something to die for and how far he’ll go to ensure death is pretty much his only end regardless of whether he finds her again. By muddling it up with Sylvan, however, it becomes the color while he becomes the focus. Bannister’s love is our entry point to the criminally violent acts occurring in the shadows rather than the other way around.
Coincidences can’t help but grow in number as a result since Joy is now spending more effort connecting these two plots than ensuring we care enough to follow either. It didn’t matter how much I invested in Bannister and Mae’s affair, his gradual realization that she isn’t who he thought she was led only to boredom. Why? Because none of it mattered. Sylvan, his wife (Marina de Tavira‘s Tamara), a dirty cop (Cliff Curtis‘ Boothe), and a gangster (Daniel Wu‘s Saint Joe) are pawns being moved on a board where the audience is often one or two steps ahead of the man meeting and remembering each. Them leading back to Bannister’s love, Watts’ hope, and the obvious over-arching theme that happy endings are a myth doesn’t earn absolution.
It doesn’t because neither part can stand without the other and yet neither is quite captivating enough to warrant having to wade through the other to reach its end. Everything is a bit half-baked in that way, including, most notably, the politics at the film’s center. We hear about those internment camps and the general unrest along socio-economic lines, but it’s all window-dressing to be used later. It’s as though there’s an underlying butterfly effect at play despite this not being a time travel film. We are seeing into the past, but only so much that present recognition might change the future. To discover this tiny clue in one stranger’s memory leads to a ripple effect throughout the entire country. One man’s love can suddenly change the world.
I smile at the thought because it’s a poetic sentiment that exists and could have been the purpose if Joy let it. She sadly cannot escape the track she laid for the puzzle box housing that poem so it may shine—her work on “Westworld” with husband Jonathan Nolan conversely found a way for coexistence, probably because season one had five times as many hours to do so. Does this fact make Reminiscence a complete dud? No. It looks great; Jackman, Newton, Ferguson, and Curtis deliver effective performances; and the environmental scope is worthy of our time if only it could find the correct route forward to prove it. The right beginning and end are present, the journey is just too convoluted and overstuffed to gracefully connect them.
 © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Ben Rothstein Caption: (L-r) REBECCA FERGUSON as Mae and HUGH JACKMAN as Nick Bannister in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action thriller “REMINISCENCE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
 © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Ben Rothstein Caption: (L-r) THANDIWE NEWTON as Watts and HUGH JACKMAN as Nick Bannister in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action thriller “REMINISCENCE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
 © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures Caption: DANIEL WU as Saint Joe in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action thriller “REMINISCENCE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.