Why do people retreat into their minds to relive pleasant memories in the face of a harsh reality? Is it better to live in an uncertain present than to find guaranteed solace in the past? These are questions that hit HBO series “Westworld” co-creator Lisa Joy poses — yet never really answers — in her feature film directorial debut. “Reminiscence” squanders its interesting premise and talented cast with a cliched script and forgettable plot. Its failure at the box office adds to a list of recent failures of standalone science fiction films in a franchise-crazed Hollywood environment.
Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) is a veteran in a near-future version of Miami who now runs an establishment that specializes in helping people relive any memory — or “Reminiscence” — they want, for purposes ranging from finding lost keys to reliving romantic encounters. His services are in high demand following a series of climate disasters and a war that has left the flooded Miami in a state of perpetual civil unrest. Nick’s relatively stable existence is upended when Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), a femme fatale ripped straight from the noir films of the ’30s, steps into his shop and sweeps him off his feet.
Several months later, after they have begun a romantic relationship, Mae vanishes without a trace or a word goodbye, leaving Nick desperate to find any trace of her and causing him to become addicted to memories of their relationship. As Nick uses his own memories and the help of his coworker and confidant Watts Sanders (Thandiwe Newton) to pick up Mae’s trail, he becomes embroiled in a conspiracy. The conspiracy revolves around one of Miami’s Barons: ultra-wealthy businesspeople who use their riches to live in dry, gated communities free of the suffering and unrest faced by the rest of the flooded city.
The world of “Reminiscence” is a unique one, and the few glimpses into society outside Nick’s single-minded investigation to find Mae show an intriguing — if derivative — setting. The flooded, crime-ridden streets of Miami are a welcome change of pace from the typical Hollywood dystopian setting, although it shares their lack of subtlety. The dystopic elements of the society shown in the film can be seen by the occasional walled-off Baron islands whose gated and dammed communities pump water out of their oases and into poorer communities in a rather unsubtle representation of a chasmic class divide.
Such literal representations of class divides are common for sci-fi dystopias, as seen in “Blade Runner,” “The Hunger Games” and many other films. Nick is also a veteran of an unspecified war that occurred sometime after most of the world flooded, where he worked as an interrogator who used the Reminiscence machines to extract information from enemy soldiers. This is a unique and compelling aspect of the film, and it’s strange that this setting is rarely used.
From its outset, it’s clear that “Reminiscence” is heavily influenced by classic noir and science fiction films including “The Maltese Falcon” and “Blade Runner.” Nick has a running voiceover to lend to the aesthetic, but it serves little purpose other than to restate previous plot points. In an interesting genre subversion, much of the film’s action occurs during the day, as many cities have switched to a nocturnal lifestyle to stay out of the blistering heat of the presumably ozone-less sky. While he’s technically not a detective, Nick uses the same set of practices.
His actions boil down to going to a new location, finding a person who he has been told has information, getting into a gun or fist fight, then finally getting a new name and location. The film repeats this cycle about a half dozen times, broken up only by the occasional oddly placed and oddly paced interludes of Nick’s own Reminiscences of his short-lived relationship with Mae.
To add to the film’s myriad problems is its soundtrack. While this may seem like a minor complaint, it actively drags the already mediocre film down with its generic sad piano music during dramatic or romantic scenes, and twanging synth during its action sequences. During one particularly odd scene, the film’s bizarre editing and poor soundtrack come together to form an incredibly weak sequence.
Nick and Watts get in a gunfight with some gangsters, and, seemingly unprompted, Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” begins playing. For all of about 10 seconds the song and action sync up, with gunshots perfectly matching the song’s bassline, and in better-executed films, this would continue as a fun action sequence. But then the music abruptly stops and the fight continues with generic action music. It feels like a buildup of tension that releases not with a bang but the sound of a balloon noisily deflating.
“Reminiscence” was released concurrently in theaters and on HBO Max on Aug. 20 and went on to gross $2 million at the box office. The film had a budget of around $60 million, so even for the pandemic era the film was a box office bomb. (See Disney’s new release “Free Guy”, which premiered on Aug. 13 and saw an opening weekend gross of $28.3 million.)
Standalone science fiction films have recently struggled at the box office, even if their overall reception is positive; Ang Lee’s 2019 action sci-fi film “Gemini Man” made a mere $20.5 million at the box office on its opening weekend, and that was before the pandemic. While it eventually barely made its budget back — grossing $173 million against a $130 million budget — the film was considered a flop, especially since a large percentage of a film’s gross goes to the theater chains that distribute it.
Films like “Reminiscence” that have a slightly more cerebral premise and are not linked to any major franchises tend to struggle at the box office, especially if they’re only all-right films rather than great ones. Films tend to be publicized quite a bit if they’re very well-made or very poorly made, but films that are only average or slightly below-average rarely get much publicity from word of mouth or on social media.
While the pandemic and the new HBO Max concurrent release strategy may have damaged the box office take of “Reminiscence,” it’s undeniable that its mediocrity and lack of publicity made it flounder as well. And at its current pace, it looks like the film may soon be forgotten.