‘Reminiscence’ blends film’s past with apocalyptic future

Images courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

10/10 You shouldn’t trust me with Reminiscence. I’m weak to this film.

Miami- In the near future, the ocean has swallowed the city. It’s partially held back by a sea wall several stories high, but the streets that remain are permanently covered in a few inches of water. Personal tugboats have overtaken cars, and the city has formally become nocturnal, with banking and business hours at night, to escape the scorching days.

In this sunken city that scurries out of the sun, Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) runs a service that allows people to experience memories first-hand again, repurposing futuristic military interrogation technology for pleasure – though of course he makes his real money as a lie detector and interrogator for the court. In the wee hours of the night, a femme fatale called Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) walks into Bannister’s office looking for help remembering where she dropped her keys. She’s dressed to kill, but she only needs her eyes. Bannister becomes obsessed with her from there.

Reminiscence imagines a society of the future that has turned to the past as an escape from its present, and the film itself reflects this.

Reminiscence as a film, like its characters, haunts the romanticized image of cinema’s past, smothered and dripping in film noir. Film noir is the core genre that all cinephiles are in love with to some extent, the first genre to systematically employ the technological boundaries and behind-the-scenes considerations of film as the primary point. Instead of using light simply as a tool to illuminate subjects, the genre’s adherents make light the subject, creating an iconography out of light, shadow and smoke, the higher the contrast, the better. The brooding imagery lent itself perfectly to stories of working-class cynicism coming out of the Depression, which merged with pre- and post-war anxiety into a despair in the American character that never really died. The plots concerned seedy underbellies of booming societies that are rarely depicted in the films themselves, of gumshoe men lost in a world with no morality and usually faithless women taking advantage of them.

While cinematographer Paul Cameron works plenty of subtle shadow-heavy compositions into the film, Reminiscence mostly expresses its noir sensibilities through the art-deco interior design and exterior focus on decrepit skyscrapers – like many great American cities, Miami’s first real boom was in the 1920s, and this architecture style is still dominant in parts of the city that date back to that boom – and in the characters’ post-war angst. Bannister and his business partner, Emily “Watts” Sanders (Thandiwe Newton), both served in climate wars described sometime between now and the film, which were spent forcefully keeping climate refugees out of America. Most characters, and even most conversations, quickly go back to what they were doing during the war, similar to the way films noir of the ‘40s commonly wove the scars of World War II into their text.  

Reminiscence’s crisis exists at the very edge of our future and at the very edge of its past, and it releases at the edge of climate change taking over as the dominant anxiety in film. Current projections have Miami underwater sometime between 2050 and 2100, and I wonder if Bannister is alive right now. Did he watch George Floyd get murdered? Did he look up to Greta Thunberg and hope for his generation, only to grow cynical when he saw with his own eyes that even as the ocean reclaimed our greatest cities, the powers that be would still do nothing?

Reminiscence’s surface-level text deals primarily with the concept of addiction, whether it be to futuristic designer drugs, to the memories of life before the waters rose or in the form of Bannister’s obsessive pursuit of Mae after she disappears. This theme’s connection to the rest of the plot seems to hinge mostly on metaphor and atmosphere, using an addicted person’s sensation of being unable or unwilling to break out of their cycle to enhance the film’s mood and subtext.

The reality of what’s about to happen is only Reminiscence’s setting. What’s it’s really about is the emotional response to it – retreating into an idyllic past, one in which the reality doesn’t matter as much as the feeling of having a future. Over the past decade or so, even movies that were about natural disasters on the surface were usually really about 9/11 anxiety – giant CGI waves and windstorms were just more ammunition to drill into skyscrapers. Progressively over the past few years, and we’re going to see a tidal wave of them moving forward, there aren’t necessarily going to be as many movies about climate change at the surface, but more will strive to reflect the existential despair it creates, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

Though many in the film use the fantastic ability to look backward practically, Bannister’s and Sanders’ customers seem to relive their good days because they know they don’t have any more coming, which is obviously the emotional state moviegoing behavior has indicated for some time now, with studios seemingly afraid to put money into anything that isn’t an established intellectual property.

Reminiscence isn’t going to do much to help that fear after its disastrous $1.95 million opening, good for no. 9 at the box office. That’s the worst ever opening for a movie in more than 30,000 theaters and an absolute catastrophe on paper for something with an estimated $110 break-even point, but at the same time, it doesn’t mean a lot for a movie that was released day-and-date on HBOmax and marketed primarily to that service’s subscribers – the main creative draw was writer/director/producer Lisa Joy, who co-created HBO’s “Westworld,” making her feature debut, so it makes a lot of sense that most of Reminiscence’s viewership would already have the streaming service and be less likely to go to a theater to see this even among other subscribers.

It’s a shame that Reminiscence has already dropped down to 314 theaters, but the truth is it doesn’t lose much on the small screen and it shouldn’t put too much of a speed bump on Joy’s career. This is a special film for whiskey and a stormy night, and I strongly recommend it.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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