Review: ‘Reminiscence’ (2021), starring Hugh Jackman

September 25, 2021

by Carla Hay

Rebecca Ferguson and Hugh Jackman in “Reminiscence” (Photo by Ben Rothstein/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Reminiscence” (2021)

Directed by Lisa Joy

Culture Representation: Taking place in Miami and New Orleans, the sci-fi dramatic film “Reminiscence” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people, Asians and Latinos and one Māori person) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A private investigator, who is in the business of helping people recover memories, becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to a former client/lover who suddenly disappeared. 

Culture Audience: “Reminiscence” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Hugh Jackman, but even he can’t save this boring sci-fi drivel.

Cliff Curtis and Daniel Wu in “Reminiscence” (Photo by Ben Rothstein/Warner Bros. Pictures)

The sci-fi drama “Reminiscence” features several people submerged in a water tank as they recover or relive their memories. Ironically, this ill-conceived movie is utterly forgettable, as it submerges viewers in a story that’s both convoluted and predictable. Hugh Jackman’s charisma as a leading man is stifled as he plays a grim private detective who is obsessed with finding an ex-lover who suddenly vanished from his life.

Adding to this film’s muddled tone, “Reminiscence” (written and directed by Lisa Joy, in her feature-film directorial debut) can’t decide if it wants to be a futuristic adventure or a tribute to classic noir. The movie looks like it wants to be an action thriller, but there’s more mopey drama than action. The fight scenes are extremely formulaic and almost mind-numbing.

Mostly, the pace drags in this jumbled story where bitter people sulk and get angry because they think their lives have gone downhill in some way. Almost every character in this film dosn’t have a memorable personality. Good luck to anyone who tries to stay awake during this 116-minute snoozefest.

“Reminiscence” takes place in Miami, in an unidentified future year when climate change has caused unbearable heat outside during the day, and Miami is close to being swallowed up by the Atlantic Ocean. Because of the extreme daytime heat from the sun, Miami and the surrounding areas in Florida have become more nocturnal than ever before.

But apparently, in this futuristic version of Miami, no one wants good lighting, because it’s constantly dark indoors. The darkly lit cinematography is “Reminiscence” is supposed to evoke a society that’s on the brink of an environmental disaster. The only disaster going in is how this awful movie wastes the talents of the cast members.

It’s in this darkly lit and depressing Miami where private investigator Nick Bannister (played by Jackman) lives and works. Nick is a never-married bachelor with no children. He owns a detective agency that’s small (only two employees, including Nick) and struggling to stay in business. Nick’s specialty at the detective agency is helping people recover their memories. The agency’s work space (which looks more like an abandoned warehouse than an office) is predictably dark, cluttered and dingy in this dark, cluttered and dingy movie.

For this memory recovery process, Nick has a massive water tank that’s not widely available, and he doesn’t want too many people to know that he has this tank. Therefore, he doesn’t advertise and gets most of his business through word of mouth. The tank was originally designed to interrogate people who were detained by the U.S. military. Nick is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, where he worked in border patrol. It’s implied that he got access to this tank through his military service.

In order to a use this memory tank, a person must first be injected with a sedative, then submerged in the tank, where a special helmet must be worn that can connect to brain electrodes. When someone is reliving a memory, it’s depicted as being a participant in a virtual reality experience. Memories while in the tank can also take the form of looking like holograms.

It’s possible for someone to stay in the tank for long periods of time and have a state of being that’s very similar to someone in a coma. Nick has found that his regular clients have become addicted to accessing happy memories. Watts is more concerned than Nick is about people getting addicted to using the memory tank. Nick thinks Watts has no place being judgmental about addiction, considering her alcohol addiction that she doesn’t seem too concerned about stopping.

All of this sounds like the basis for a good story. However, “Reminiscence” becomes very disjointed and often illogical. Viewers will get the impression that “Reminiscence” writer/director Joy came up with separate ideas for this movie and then tried to make them all fit into the overall narrative. The result is like looking at a jigsaw puzzle where too many of the pieces obviously don’t belong.

During his time in the military, Nick injured one of his legs, so he walks with a limp. This limp magically seems to disappear during some of the action scenes. A better director would’ve noticed this discrepancy and corrected it. Nick’s only employee is a cynical alcoholic named Emily “Watts” Sanders (played by Thandie Newton), who is also a military veteran. Even though Watts is an alcoholic, she’s more responsible and more business-minded than Nick is.

In the movie’s first scene with Nick and Watts together, she abruptly scolds him for being late. Nick says in response that being late is a construct of linear [time], which is a concept that he doesn’t think applies to the work of this detective agency. Watts snaps back sarcastically, “And yet, we charge by the hour.”

One day, right before they close the agency for the night, a mysterious woman suddenly arrives and says she needs their help to find her missing keys. Watts tries to tell her to come back during open business hours, but Nick is immediately attracted to the woman and tells her that they can accommodate her request.

She introduces herself as Mae (played by Rebecca Ferguson), and she says that she’s a cabaret nightclub singer. She’s wearing the type of slinky red evening gown that looks like she just left a nightclub or she raided the closet of animation seductress character Jessica Rabbit from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Mae’s sensual nightclub singing scenes and how she’s styled for them look very much like they were inspired by Jessica Rabbit.

At the detective agency during Mae’s sudden appearance, Watts offers Mae a swimsuit, because it’s what people usually wear inside the water tank. But to the surprise of Nick and Watts, this woman they just met has no qualms about stripping completely naked in front of them before she gets in the tank. Mae confidently tells Nick that he’s going to see her naked anyway. And she’s right. At least this movie doesn’t try to play coy about Mae and Nick inevitably becoming romantically involved.

With the help of the memory tank, Mae finds out where she left her keys. But since she essentially told Nick that she wants to get to know him intimately, he’s not going to just let her walk out of his life. He shows up at one of her nightclub gigs to see her perform, he asks her out on a date, and they end up having a hot and heavy romance.

Meanwhile, Nick makes extra money by assisting the Miami district attorney Avery Castillo (played by Natalie Martinez) in getting information from witnesses. Avery is currently involved in a high-profile case where a wealthy land baron named Walter Sylvan (played by Brett Cullen) has been accused of masterminding arson of some of his property, in order for him to collect on hefty fire insurance payouts. Walter has pleaded not guilty. His wife Tamara Sylvan (played by Marina de Tavira) and his young adult son Sebastian Sylvan (played by Mojean Aria) loyally stand by him and are unwavering in their support.

Another member of law enforcement whom Nick is in close contact with is Miami police officer Cyrus Boothe (played by Cliff Curtis), who seems to be on a power trip where he has a lot of disdain for disenfranchised people. In a city that’s on the verge of an apocalypse, Cyrus wants to wield as much power as he can. It should come as no surprise what he’s willing to do to fulfill his ambitions.

And a movie about a private detective and law enforcement in Miami predictably has a storyline about drug dealers too. In “Reminiscence,” the world is plagued by the abuse of an illegal opioid-like drug called baca. One of the top distributors/sellers of baca is a drug lord called Saint Joe (played by Daniel Wu), who is a stereotypical drug lord in a movie. Unfortunately, Wu’s stiff acting doesn’t make him look convincing as a dangerous drug lord. It just makes him look like an actor who needs more acting lessons.

After getting involved with Mae and thinking that their romance could turn into a long-term commitment, Nick is shocked to find out that Mae has suddenly moved away without telling anyone where she went. Upon investigation, Nick discovers that Mae was not kidnapped but left on her own free will. This discovery sends him down a rabbit hole of obsession to find out where Mae is.

Nick’s investigation eventually leads him to New Orleans, where he finds clues about a mysterious and vulnerable woman named Elsa Carine (played by Angela Sarafyan), who has a pivotal connection to someone in the story. There’s also a do-gooder named Frances (played by Barbara Bonilla), who lives in a house on stilts in the Atlantic Ocean. As Nick tries to solve the mystery of Mae’s apparently deliberate disappearance, he becomes addicted to using the memory tank to bask in his happy memories of her. His addiction gets in the way of his detective agency’s business and prevents Nick from being present in the real world.

Because Nick spends so much time in the memory tank, expect to see many flashbacks to the good times that he had with Mae. It’s his way of trying to remember any possible clues or hints of Mae’s disappearance. However, because Mae’s abrupt disappearance has deeply hurt Nick, Watts knows there’s more to Nick’s fixation on remembering Mae than trying to gather clues. He’s using his addiction to being in the memory tank as a way to avoid his emotional pain, just like the clients who are also addicted to using the memory tank.

“Reminiscence” has a very superficial way of dealing with these psychological issues. Instead, the movie seems more fascinated with having dream-like visual effects (which are good, but not outstanding) and showing recurring images of people being immersed in water in some way. “Reminiscence” writer/director Joy is one of the showrunners of the HBO sci-fi series “Westworld” (Newton is an Emmy-winning “Westworld” co-star), and Joy seems to have struggled to find a way to make the story she probably had mind into a two-hour movie. It’s why “Reminiscence” tries to cram in too much in the last third of the movie, while the middle of the movie is a long and monotonous stretch of repetition.

“Reminiscence” also misses the mark in casting decisions and in the characters’ witless dialogue. Jackman and Ferguson had more chemistry together when they co-starred in the 2017 movie musical “The Greatest Showman” (where their characters weren’t lovers but had some sexual tension with each other) than they do as portraying lovers in “Reminiscence.” The lines that Jackman and Ferguson have to utter in “Reminiscence” sound like they were rejected from a bad romance novel.

Jackman is a very talented actor, but he seems miscast as someone who’s supposed to be an emotionally damaged and stoic detective. He delivers his lines flatly, as if his character has a dead personality. Only in Nick’s scenes with Mae does Nick doesn’t show any hints that he could be passionate about anything. Ferguson is perfectly adequate as the enigmatic Mae, but her “seductive diva” singing scenes in “Reminiscence” seem overly contrived and pale in comparison to Ferguson’s more appealing “seductive diva” singing scenes in “The Greatest Showman.”

“Reminiscence” hints at but never really follows through with the notion that Nick has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his military background. He’s definitely not getting therapy for it. Watts is Nick’s unofficial counselor, and she’s the one who points out to Nick that he’s using the memory tank to “self-medicate.”

The movie tells more about Watts’ own troubled history than it tells about Nick’s turbulent past, even though Nick is the story’s protagonist/central character. Newton’s Watts is the only character in “Reminiscence” that comes close to being depicted as complex, with Newton capably handling the role of an emotionally wounded person who tries to hide her pain in alcohol and a tough-talking persona. All the other characters in “Reminiscence” are quite two-dimensional.

Ultimately, “Reminiscence” could have been a much better movie if the story and dialogue were better-crafted. The writing seems like it was made for a comic book rather than a feature film. In a comic book, it’s easier to get away with chopping up the story in a boxy manner. In a movie, the story needs to flow more seamlessly, but “Reminiscence” fails to do that because it’s a film with an identity crisis of not knowing what it wants to be in the first place.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “Reminiscence” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on August 20, 2021.