Reminiscence (2021)

Directed by Lisa Joy

movie cinema scifi cyberpunk review

"You're going to take journey to a time and place you've been before. All you have to do is follow the sound of my voice."

It's the not-too-distant future. The world's oceans have risen, leaving most land masses flooded by varying degrees. There have been mass uprisings as flood refugees scramble to find a home. Land barons have the bulk of the power.

Nick Bannister and his partner "Watts" are ex-military veterans, and they've made a living for themselves as archivists of memories. Using a device used during the war for interrogation, they're able to delve into the memories so their clients can relive their past glories. One client obsesses over the first dance she had with her husband. Another obsesses over her former lover, reliving sexual encounters over and over. An old army pal relives the simple act of playing with his dog, back before the war, back when he still had his legs.

Then one day, a new client walks in. A dame who's lost her keys. She just needs a quick session to remember where she placed them. What could be simpler than that?

Well, of course the femme fatale kicks off an exciting mystery that lasts the rest of the movie. And it's good, a proper cyberpunk noir film, with Hugh Jackman serving as the American version of John Hurt. It's not just good, it's a little bit great. It's not Bladerunner, but it's easily Dark City. And it pulls some tricks that many other cyberpunk movies don't.

References and callbacks

First of all, I should talk about the electric sheep in the room. This movie makes you think of a bunch of other movies and stories. We can remember it for you wholesale comes immediately to mind, and movies like the excellent City of Lost Children, or Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind (which I didn't like) and I guess other things like Inception (which I've never seen). The look of the movie is Bladerunner, not just in the eternally water-slick streets, but also the feeling that those memory interrogation briefcases could easily be mistaken for a Voight-Kampff test.

None of this is actually a problem. Despite being firmly rooted in a very specific genre that has relatively very few members, this movie isn't derivative. It's a future noir movie that plays around with many of the same concepts that future noir is founded upon.

Future noir

I don't know if it's a term I've coined for myself or whether it's a term people use, but "future noir" for me is cyberpunk modeled after film noir. It's a mashup of two genres, so it must fulfill requirements of each.

Cyberpunk has to have lots of impossible scifi tech in it, an oppressive corporate state, a recent cataclysmic event, and preferably colourful lights to dazzle its home viewers.

Film noir was a specific thing that happened after World War II, and future noir is a reference to it set in the future. Film noir had dispossessed war veterans turning, out of desperation, to either the solving of or the participation in crime. It established the femme fatale archetype, the woman who the hero wants but cannot and must not ever have. And I guess most famously, it's got a high contrast ratio of light to dark (they don't call it film noir for nothing).

Reminiscence gets both genre references exactly right.

It perfectly mixes the look of cyberpunk with classic film noir, possibly technically better than Bladerunner did (Bladerunner wasn't aware that it was establishing the rules for a whole new genre, so it doesn't have to adhere to a strict set of requirements like all the films inspired by it do). I'm not saying I prefer the look of Reminiscence to the look of Bladerunner but if I was going to point somebody to visual examples of future noir after the original, I'd point to this movie along with Dark City and City of Lost Children.

The story is all cyberpunk. Delving into memories that dominate the mind so that it seems you're reliving your past, while submerged in a sensory deprivation tank with electrodes strapped to your head? Yes, that's 100% cyberpunk.

No wait, the story is actually all noir. Private detectives search through memories for clues that start with a beautiful chanteuse but lead back to a corporate land dispute. There's a scene in which the hero mistakes someone for the femme fatale, a brief but effective callback to the common trope of mistaken identities in noir. The heroes are addicts, one to memories and one to alcohol. It's 100% noir.

OK, so it really is both.


The music in the film is by Ramin Djawadi. It's a good score, although maybe a little too overtly sentimental sometimes.

Rebecca Ferguson is great as Mae, but she's meant to be a sultry nightclub singer and I am not convinced she's got the chops for that. It feels mean to say it, because she's not a bad singer, she's just not a great singer, and I feel like it's tough to believe that Mae is a professional singer. Keep the actor, just dub in a better singer for the musical numbers. (Or layer on the reverb. It's a classic trick but honestly she sounds great in some eerie sonic flashbacks. In fact, maybe it's not the actor's fault, after all. Maybe I'll blame the sound engineer.)

Remember this movie for me

The movie isn't perfect, which is OK because few are. It's too long, at almost 2 hours.

Some memories are relived a few too many times. I understand the emotional impact the movie is trying to make, but for me the impact had already landed, and I think it would have been more effective to rob me (or spare me) of the reliving yet another flashback in a story that's already done a lot to blur its timeline.

I don't know what the right ending is, but I don't believe it was leaving Nick in a catatonic state as he hopelessly relives his memories over and over again. I guess Watts visits him every day to infuse him with nutrition and to clean his sensory deprivation tank? Not the greatest way to leave a protagonist no matter the genre. Surely it would have been better to either just have him fry his brain or, better still, to have him follow through on the lessons-learned speech he gave to Watts and have him and Watts end up together, or to otherwise move on with his life. Or pull a Casablanca or a Chinatown and have him and the District Attorney wander down the flooded streets, vowing never to speak of the incident again.

Minor quirks aside, this is a great movie. It's made my list of future noir films to remember.

Lead photo by Anika De Klerk on Unsplash

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