Highfalutin, lightly enjoyable mush, “Reminiscence” is one of those speculative fictions that are at once undernourished and overcooked. It makes no sense (despite all the explaining), but it draws you in with genre beats, pretty people and the professional polish of its machined parts. It’s shiny and pricey and looks good on the big screen; it is also the newest addition to what now plays like the Nolan Family Extended Universe.
The writer-director of “Reminiscence” is Lisa Joy who, with her husband, Jonathan Nolan, created the HBO series “Westworld.” Jonathan Nolan has helped write some of his brother Christopher’s films, notably “Memento” and “Interstellar,” and served as a producer on “Reminiscence.” Although these entertainments have their obvious differences, including in quality, the family DNA is evident in their embrace of narrative elasticity and interest in the labyrinths of the mind (also: gunplay and hot women). With degrees of success, they play with time and space, storytelling conventions and human consciousness. “It’s all a construct,” a character says in “Westworld.” “None of it is real.”
That character is played by Thandiwe Newton, one of the stars of “Reminiscence,” a kinked tale in which the divide between reality and its facsimiles is blurred. Here, Newton plays Watts, a crusty, no-nonsense veteran with a booze problem and an obvious thing for her boss, an old war buddy, Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman in squinty tough-guy mode). Set in a fairly benign-looking dystopia — Miami is partly underwater but jumping — they run a business where customers can recover favorite and forgotten memories. After clients strip and lie semi-immersed in a tub, Nick plugs them into a machine that renders their memories into lifelike or, rather, movielike 3-D projections.
Trouble arrives in the form of a slinky redhead, Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), who can’t find her keys. Struck dumb, seriously dumb by her mere and unremarkable presence, Nick falls fast and hard, and soon tumbles into the kind of complicated trouble that inevitably bedevils noir heroes with granite jaws and bleeding hearts. A great deal ensues, some of it nonsensical, some of it diverting. For a short while, the movie drifts along agreeably as Nick and Mae’s gauzy romance heats up, and then Joy shifts gears, flexing her action-genre muscles with violence and rampaging villains. And, much as in “Westworld,” the movie uses memory to explore its characters’ humanity or lack thereof.
Like Nick’s clients, “Reminiscence” oscillates between the past and the present, which fits a thriller nestled at the intersection of film noir and science fiction. Yet while Joy has handsomely kitted out her future world with ominous cascades of water and other apocalyptic flourishes — the rich live on dry land while the poor struggle to keep from drowning, literally and figuratively — the past exerts a stronger pull on her. She treads a lot of familiar genre ground, which is expected (and fine!), but she also stuffs “Reminiscence” with so many cinematic allusions that the movie itself soon feels like a very thin copy. Pastiche comes with the neo-noir territory but can also inundate it.
When Nick walks down a mean street, the dark city gleaming, the image sets the scene. For some viewers, it will likely unleash a chain of associations: Raymond Chandler, Humphrey Bogart, Harrison Ford. Certainly the vision of another lonely man of honor piques your interest as you wait for Joy to clarify her intentions, revealing whether she’s having fun, rethinking golden Hollywood oldies or both. One problem with citing favorites is that the imitations often wither when set against their dazzling influences, which is what happens when Mae sings a Rodgers-and-Hart standard in a strapless, side-slit gown clearly modeled on the one that Rita Hayworth immortalized in “Gilda.”
Ferguson is an attractive if regrettably wan presence in “Reminiscence,” though it’s hard to imagine who, other than a cartoon femme fatale à la Jessica Rabbit, could even approach the devastating charms of Hayworth’s Gilda. It’s equally difficult to think of many actors who could handle Joy’s cliché-ridden, melodramatically engorged dialogue, which consistently trips up her actors. Joy has a feel for spectacle and can handle bodies and bullets flying through space. When she’s not narrowing her focus on big heads, she fills the frame with strong, clear images — a bed on a roof, a city in water — that have a solidity that helps anchor the movie, which is generally better seen than heard.
Rated PG-13 for action-movie violence, including gunplay and immolation. Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes. In theaters and on HBO Max.
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