Stop me if you think you’ve seen this one before. Back in 2014, Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer, Wally Pfister, made his feature directing debut with Transcendence, a sci-fi thriller with new-fangled sets and much talk about the parameters of the human mind. Now Nolan’s sister-in-law, Lisa Joy, has made a sci-fi thriller with… well, you get the idea.
Joy is the co-creator of TV series, Westworld. Abundantly talented, she surely didn’t set out to make a Nolan knock-off. And though, in truth, her project is no match for Inception and Memento, (or neo-noirs like Chinatown and Blade Runner) what she and her star, Hugh Jackman, have created is something you won’t look back on with anger.
In the not so distant future, ex-navy guy, Nick Bannister (Jackman), lives in politically corrupt, climate-cursed Miami. The zones where the poor live are permanently half-flooded and, in the daytime, it’s hot as hell. Nick owns a hologram-generating machine and makes his living by plugging desperate people into pleasant, hyper-vivid memories. The clients want to visit the past. Nick and his partner Watts, (Thandiwe Newton), make sure the tourists have a great time but don’t stay too long. One day, a beautiful red-headed singer, Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), appears. She says she needs help. Soon Nick’s the one who’s in trouble.
The word “reminiscence” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue and in its plural form it’s a liability. Jackman, discussing “reminiscences”, looks as relieved to get to the last “s” as an ice-skater who’s just performed a triple axel. Did he nail that on the first take or is there a blooper reel where he turns to the camera and says, “For the love of God, can’t I just say “memories”?”
Jackman has a mouth always ready to twitch with mischief. As Nick trawls through Mae’s brain and gets to “see” her apartment, he spots what looks like a vibrator. Later, in Mae’s presence, he alludes to what he thinks he saw. Nick, who has many gruesome fights (and even stabs someone’s eye with a needle!) is undoubtedly great at hurting. But he’s even better at flirting.
Newton (as in Westworld) also gets opportunities to shine. The way Watts’ face crumples, during a conversation with Mae, is simply shattering.
Admittedly, in the first half, Nick, who doubles as the film’s narrator, does tend to wang on (talk about voice-over-kill). Meanwhile, the quarrels between Nick and Watts are repetitive. He wants to help Mae, Watts is suspicious, etc. We’re supposed to be fascinated by Mae. Is she an angel or devil, or something in between? Yet in all her incarnations she’s underwhelming and though Nick says her voice is fantastic it’s really just OK. Ferguson was the weakest link in The Greatest Showman and nothing’s changed.
Oh yes, and a set-piece in New Orleans, with Daniel Wu, as put-upon crime lord, Saint Joe, is guilty of being both earnest and overly slick. Joe, alas, is hologram thin.
Luckily, in the second half things improve and Nick’s desire to put the blame elsewhere, rather than address the fact that trillionaires are screwing over the 99%, generates real heat. Mexican actress, Marina de Tavira, (the matriarch from Roma), is spookily good as Tamara Sylvan, the addled but ruthless wife of one of Miami’s richest men. De Tavira has the kind of fraught eyes and lived-in body you rarely see in blockbusters.
Tamara’s ornate delusions, coupled with an underwater scene involving a drowned theatre, are dreamy on every level.
Reminiscence could definitely do with a trim (some scenes don’t even make sense; one crucial witness provides false intel and we never learn why; Reminiscence feels like an ambitious, two and a half hour opus that’s been inexpertly edited into submission). Yet it gets where it needs to go.
Right at the end, the character you least expect to turn into a sleeping beauty shuts their eyes. Lisa Joy has the potential to be a major film-maker. If and when she gets out of Nolan’s shadow, her work will be easy to remember and impossible to forget.
In cinemas from August 20. 12A 116mins