In “Reminiscence,” a sci-fi noir love story set in a climate-change dystopia that’s just short of the apocalypse enough to make Miami look like Venice with hotter nightclubs, Hugh Jackman plays Nick Bannister, a former soldier who runs a business in which people pay to float, unconscious, in a sensory-deprivation tank. Immersed in its calming water, with a virtual-reality headset on, they’re able to travel back into their fondest memories. It’s technology that makes the time-tripping possible, but the decaying landscape around them that makes it desirable. When the world starts to overheat and drown, the movie implies, our memories of better days may be all we have.
The sensation of déjà vu figures prominently in “Reminiscence.” We watch people’s memories unfold as if on a giant movie screen, eavesdropping on their most intimate moments. And so do Nick and his trusty number two, Watts (Thandiwe Newton), who are monitoring those memories, recording them on small square synthetic files.
More from Variety
Beyond that, however, the entire movie, which was written and directed by Lisa Joy (the co-showrunner of “Westworld”), can often feel like a device for transporting the audience back to memories from the pop-culture past. Nick’s business occupies a dark, tall-ceilinged catacomb of an office space in which the sun glints around drawn blinds; it’s very “Blade Runner: The Streaming Series,” with maybe a stray hint of “The Godfather.” Outside, the flooded Miami landscape, with buildings and byways still visible, evokes a kind of “Waterworld Lite” crossed with a “Hunger Games” sequel. And when Nick, after falling into a romantic liaison with the beautiful and mysterious Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), attempts to learn what happened to her, he becomes immersed in a crime drama — drugs, dirty cops — that evokes everything from “Miami Vice” to the noirs of the ’40s.
No one could accuse “Reminiscence” of being an incompetent movie. It’s well-crafted, shot with expert gradations of filtered gloss, and every piece of its story falls into place just so. Yet here’s one case where that feeling of clockwork precision is actually part of what’s numbing about the film.
Back in the day, film noir, though we don’t necessarily think of it this way, was one of the most romantic of all movie genres. The phrase “femme fatale” conjures a lot of words apart from romance — words like cold, slinky, manipulative, treacherous — but the point is that the saps who fell for femme fatales fell for them completely; they let love lead them into the abyss. And the femme fatales fell, too. Rita Hayworth in “Gilda,” Lana Turner in “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity” — these women may have flaunted their erotic power, but what made them so devious is that they used their own internal conflicted romantic feelings as a form of entrapment. It was love that lit the dark fuse of noir, at least back in its studio heyday.
But in “Reminiscence,” when we watch Nick fall in love with Mae, a drifter with a shady past, only to lose her as quickly as he found her, the romantic spark is so iconic and overfamiliar that it doesn’t carry that same breathless charge of fate. Nick and Mae just seem like they’re going through the motions of a cliché “hot” connection. She’s a cabaret singer, and Joy shoots her in a way that’s meant to be mythically glamorous: singing at the Coconut Club, in a red silk dress slit up to the thigh, standing before an old-fashioned microphone just like the one Isabella Rossellini commandeered in “Blue Velvet.”
Rebecca Ferguson is a magnetic actress who, at moments, suggests Isabelle Huppert without the reflexive disaffection. But I wish her character had more of a present-tense force. The connection between her and Jackman actually felt more dangerous in “The Greatest Showman.” When Nick goes back into Mae’s past, traveling to New Orleans (which looks just like Miami) and using other people’s memories to piece together his detective puzzle, what we learn feels concocted. There’s a drug called baca involved. There’s a gangster named Saint Joe (played by the wily Daniel Wu, who the movie could have used more of). Mostly, though, Mae seems a by-the-book lethal manipulator, defined by a Proustian wisp of a song (“So it seems we’ve been here before…”), because that’s what the movie needs her to be.
Jackman never phones in a performance, but his hawkish eagerness here registers, at times, as trying too hard. He’s at his best in his scenes with Thandiwe Newton, who razzes him with ace timing; the two achieve a spiky office chemistry. If it weren’t for the deep-dive-into-memory premise, “Reminiscence” would be nothing more than a pile of well-worn noir tropes, featuring Cliff Curtis as a corrupt cop with a scarred scalp who masterminds an array of crimes that we never feel overly invested in. Yet it’s funny how the memory premise of this movie works. Back in the days of “Total Recall,” diving into this kind of virtual reality was a novelty, but now it’s so smoothly engineered that there’s no wow factor to it. It’s kind of like consuming television episodes. By the end of “Reminiscence,” you feel like you’re binge-watching people’s inner lives.
Best of Variety