Review: Film Noir Reminiscence Creates a Fascinating World Populated by Inert Performances

Visually compelling and front-loaded with an attractive cast, the science-fiction film Reminiscence has the added bonus of being a deeply layered film with noir story and dialogue. In it, Hugh Jackman plays Nick Bannister, a man living in a version of Miami that is slowly being lost to the ocean. Nick owns a business in which he places clients in a tank and allows them to vividly relive moments from their past, sometimes even accessing lost memories. This technology can help someone find their misplaced keys or unlock their darkest secrets.

Reminiscence Image courtesy of HBO

The nature of his business also makes him part private investigator and part interrogator when the police/district attorney require his help in getting a memory confession from a suspect. Working with his ex-military partner Watts (Thandiwe Newton), the two are scraping by as a business, with her drinking too much and him using the machine too often in order to remember a particular client, a singer named Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), who stole his heart and subsequently stomped on it and vanished without a trace. Not surprisingly, his two worlds collide when an investigation into a drug dealer named Saint Joe (Daniel Wu), requires Nick to tap into the memories of a suspect whose path happened to cross with Mae’s years earlier when she was involved with Joe, triggering Nick to dig deeper into finding her whereabouts.

Written and directed by one of the creators of  HBO’s “Westworld,” Lisa Joy, the world of Reminiscence is fascinating, showing Miami as a sort of rundown Venice, Italy, with boats maneuvering through the streets in places (the moisture content of this film is off the charts), while the richest residents of the city have built a dam around a certain selection of buildings where the water isn’t an issue. Also, the idea that the tides and heat make it impossible for the city to function during the day, Miami has become a town that is effectively nocturnal. The movie’s plot is a bit less compelling, if only because if you’ve seen a film noir, nothing here really feels that original or gripping. Jackman is fairly solid as a man addicted to a person whom he probably viewed as his last chance at love, so when she disappears, he jumps into his tank and scours his mind for clues. But also, he just enjoys being in her company again. There are also some vague references to what happens to your brain if you stay in the machine too long, meaning clearly Nick is in danger of doing some permanent damage.

The story brings us into the sphere of a wealthy man named Walter Sylvan (Brett Cullen), his delusional wife (Marina de Tavira), a crooked New Orleans cop (Cliff Curtis), all in a subplot I’m not sure really matters to the greater tale being told. But the screen becomes mildly electric when Ferguson is allowed to walk into frame and simply exist. She’s so perfectly in tune with Nick that it seems too good to be true, which anyone in their right mind would see as a red flag. I get easily bored with a film in which normally intelligent characters repeatedly do stupid things because they can’t control their emotions, and there’s a great deal of that in Reminiscence.

It’s also easy to get frustrated with a movie that doesn’t see its strongest asset right in front of it, and ends up squandering it. Newton’s character is clearly the one we should be following. She has a daughter who she hasn’t seen in years, and that might tragically be because Watts doesn’t think she’s worthy of her due to her drinking. She’s just such a force of personality and energy and curiosity that you get antsy when Watts isn’t on screen. And she’s in the film quite a bit, I don’t mean to imply otherwise; it’s just not enough. Reminiscence shows such promise that that makes its failure to connect all the more disappointing. It’s unnecessarily complicated, and as a result, I was bored a great deal of the time. Jackman is weirdly the weakest link in the film, spouting off the overly written noir dialogue (both in narration and to other characters) like he’s reading off cue cards. He’s almost more of a powerhouse the less he has to say. Sadly, a completely silent lead character isn’t an option in a work like this, which is a shame because the man looks good in a wet dress shirt while not talking.

The film is now in theaters and also streaming on HBO Max.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.