A soggy near-future noir that fatally misunderstands the past, Lisa Joy’s “Reminiscence” is miles away from memorable, but that doesn’t mean it’s always so easy to forget. For one thing, it would be hard to completely shake any murder-mystery set in a half-submerged Miami so devastated by climate change that the streets of South Beach are flooded, the entire population has gone nocturnal because the daytime is too hot, and the rich live on a massive platform that’s walled off with its own private dam. If the lavish sets are furnished with too much CG, it’s still plenty neat to see trains skim across the surface of the ocean, or watch Hugh Jackman (as a rumpled private investigator of sorts) fight someone to the death in a sunken ballroom. But for all of its mildewed splendor, this Art Deco cross between “Waterworld” and “Blade Runner” lingers in the mind as a head-scratching example of what can go wrong when science-fiction ignores the immutable nature of certain facts.
In the hard-boiled spirit of the noir genre — the affectations of which this movie wears like an ill-fitting suit — “Reminiscence” is stitched together with some voiceover narration so briny with regret that it sounds like it was just poured out of a bottle that was fished off the ocean floor. “The past can haunt a man,” Nick Bannister (Jackman) grumbles as the camera drifts into shore, “but maybe it’s us who haunt the past.” Some viewers may not be aware that Joy co-created HBO’s “Westworld,” but her script pinballs between koan-like witticisms and wag-the-dog exposition with such profound entropy that it couldn’t have been written by anybody else.
In fairness to Nick, he might have a point. “Reminiscence” is haunted by a great many things — the ghost of Humphrey Bogart, the brutalistic spirit of Joy’s brother-in-law Christopher Nolan, whatever demonic studio notes flattened her script’s ending into a thematically incoherent mess — but the past isn’t one of them. It couldn’t be: Neither this film nor anyone in it even knows what it means to remember.
Once an interrogator during the vague “border wars” that were fought sometime between then and now, Nick supports himself by operating a nifty machine that turns the human mind into a projector for the memories that have been stored inside of it. Clients come to the abandoned bank where Nick and his platonic life partner Watts (Thandiwe Newton, doing as much as she can with far too little) have set up shop, climb into an electrified water chamber, and are lulled into a deep sleep; their subconsciouses follow the sound of Nick’s voice as whatever they’re “seeing” flickers to life inside a sepia-toned 3D hologram that’s draped behind the digital beads of time.
It’s a nifty idea, but one that suffers from the same mortal flaw that’s left “Westworld” chasing its own tail for the last two seasons: Joy refuses to accept that people are wired differently than machines. Our brains are not hard drives, and our memories are not encoded onto them like data. The past is a soft thing, even long after it seems to have petrified inside of us. And while storytellers always have free reign to rewrite the rules of how this world of ours might work, Joy’s dogged insistence that memory is as objective as DNA makes it all but impossible for “Reminiscence” to reach for the nostalgia that it namechecks throughout, or access the ache that propels Nick to search for the beautiful chanteuse who vanishes after a trip in Nick’s magical bathtub.
Played by the ever-watchable Rebecca Ferguson, here rekindling the chemistry that she and Jackman first stoked in “The Greatest Showman,” Mae is such an obvious femme fatale that Nick must never have seen a movie before; maybe all of the multiplexes were lost when the levees broke. Fresh from her gig singing Rodgers and Hart’s “Where or When” for sad-eyed strangers at the Coconut Club, Mae saunters into Nick’s life wearing the kind of slinky red dress that could make a man feel like he owes her a favor in return.
In this case, Mae has lost her keys, and hopes that Nick might be able to trigger the part of her mind that remembers where they went (that memories are shown in the third-person makes sense from an aesthetic point of view, but it’s also the sweaty kind of detail this movie only makes worse by offering a ham-fisted explanation that clashes with our lived experience). After a few special nights — or is it mornings? — together, Mae disappears along with some of the memory files kept in Nick’s vault. Might this have anything to do with the upcoming criminal trial of a local tycoon, a case for which Nick’s unique services have been enlisted by the district attorney? Even someone who’s never seen a noir before will be able to connect the dots.
“Reminiscence,” like “Westworld,” is made all the more frustrating because Joy has such an entrancingly filmic imagination. Even on the compressed timeline of a feature film, she displays a rare gift for rearranging today’s anxieties into desensitized tomorrows; the Florida she creates here is somehow even bleaker than the one we’re already familiar with (a quick jaunt to New Orleans furthers the illusion), and while “Reminiscence” struggles to justify certain aspects of its tech, the movie paints a vivid picture of a future where there’s so little to look forward to that everyone keeps searching for happiness over their shoulders. Christopher Nolan’s influence would be oppressive even if not for the family connection — just listen to a genius like Ramin Djawadi resigning himself to the fuzzy cheese guitars of the film’s ersatz Hans Zimmer score — but Joy creates a more present sense of hopelessness than “Tenet” ever did.
On the other hand, “Reminiscence” falters where the likes of “Dunkirk,” “Inception,” and “Memento” successfully used film language to destabilize their unyielding adherence to logic. Where those movies told stories that were inextricable from their structures, Joy’s not-so-twisty missing persons mystery wears its big gimmick like an itchy costume; neither Nick’s search for Mae nor the reasons behind her disappearance are meaningfully connected to the act of remembering. “Reminiscence” offers glimpses of the inverted “Minority Report” riff that it might have become had Joy treated memory with the same plastic fallibility that our minds do — had she allowed for actual characters to form in the uncertain crevices where emotions gnarl into roots — but its premise doesn’t allow the past to be anything more than another addiction. Nick isn’t a person who’s desperate to recapture a moment that got away from him, he’s just a walking slogan for a service that doesn’t seem like it would hold any water. “Memory is the boat that sails against time’s current,” he intones, “and I’m the oarsman.” Whatever you say.
Whoever he is, it’s an absolute slog to watch Jackman row this way and that in search of something to justify this movie’s labored metaphors. “Reminiscence” eventually washes ashore with an incoherent ending that suggests it never had any real taste for the tragedy of its noir underpinnings, and while Joy’s vision makes for a handful of ravishing moments along the way, the film’s visuals are only interesting so far as they contradict Nick’s insistence that it’s impossible to remember something that never made an impression in the first place.