For The Signal
1.5 stars (out of 4)
Set in the near future, the protagonist of “Reminiscence” is Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackson), who is sad and angry in equal measure.
To help bring a little light to others also suffering from the futurism blues, Bannister runs a high-tech memory retrieval system in which clients climb into a coffin of liquid so they can relive fond moments projected inside a contraption that looks like one of those oil drip lamps my grandmother had. The memories tend to focus on lost love and happier times before an unspecified war made everything yucky and put everything under a minimum of 6 inches of water.
The machine can also help someone find their lost keys, as is the case for Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), a deep-voiced chanteuse who slinks her way into Bannister’s lab and life.
Anyone who’s seen more than five minutes of “The Big Sleep” or “Chinatown” will know that Mae is no ordinary dame just looking to get her car started.
It’s not long before Bannister and Mae hook up thanks to romantic dialogue filled with so much pseudo gravitas that it’s a wonder Mae doesn’t dump Bannister the first minute he starts waxing poetic about how she reminds him of some song his grandfather sang. Bacall would have thrown her cigarette in Bogart’s eye before listening to such claptrap. That said, Mae tolerates Bannister for reasons so complicated that they don’t matter, but here goes.
Suffice it to say that Mae has an ulterior motive that results in her disappearance and the leaving behind of memories that lead Bannister to memories of others embedded in other guys’ memories that have been saved on stolen plastic disks connected to an evil land baron who … oh, never mind. I might have tracked the narrative more closely if I wasn’t so busy keeping track of the memory retrieval rules that are broken as soon as they are introduced.
“Reminiscence” really wants me invested in the central mystery, but that’s not how film noir is supposed to work. Noir should draw the viewer in with dreamy damp darkness and the anticipation that the soon-to-arrive violence will be shocking and sudden. What we don’t want is endless exposition inviting us to invest in a mystery not worthy of our investment. No one watches film noir for the plot.
Still, I suppose I should count my blessings for the hostile yet flirty banter between Bannister and his assistant (Thandie Newton, providing actual sex appeal), a decent underwater fight, the use of an abandoned amusement park (how did they know I love those?), and one or two small clever twists among several that are not.
Classic film noir detective films from the ’40s and ’50s are notoriously tough to emulate. The dark suits and fedora hats, the staccato dialogue, the baked-in misogyny, the impossible-to-follow-and-”who cares?” plot — all of these are relics from film history perhaps best appreciated retroactively and in context of the time in which they were made. When post-1950 noirs DO get it right, they are usually at the hands of great craftsmen like Ridley Scott and Roman Polanski, who found truly fresh ways to update the genre. “Reminiscence” boasts no such auteur.
The director and screenwriter of “Reminiscence” is Lisa Joy, one of the creators of HBO’s “Westworld,” so it’s clear where she got the chutzpah to try her hand at another twisty futuristic bummer. The problem here is that Joy has a tin ear for how to craft a noir antihero, and she seems to actually expect the audience to get involved with the story when noir is really about mood. Do we really care whether Marlowe finds the Maltese Falcon? Not really … we just want to see him confront and humiliate Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre behind a haze of cigarette smoke and hubris.
What is ironic about this whole endeavor is that a story about déjà vu can contain so much déjà vu. This is one of those movies where if you see a fish tank, bet your friends it’ll be shot and break five minutes later. And then collect. We’ve just seen so much of this before, and it’s not done with enough verve or craftsmanship to make us feel like we haven’t.
After all, the plot of “Reminiscence” is “Chinatown” on dry land.
It’s very tough to craft a new noir when your story is a lift from what was arguably the best noir film of the last 40-plus years.
Jed Blaugrund is an English teacher at West Ranch High School, and a resident of Stevenson Ranch. Before becoming a teacher, he graduated from the USC School of Cinema/Television and worked for more than 20 years in the film business.