Lisa Joy's directing debut is an embarrassing attempt at copying the Nolan style
Curiously the offshoots of the collaborators of the Nolan brothers: Christopher and Jonathan, have struggled to adapt their similar style and turn it into an intriguing and fascinating plot. This happened with frequent Director of Photography Wally Pfister and the wannabe twisty, but ultimately boring Transcendence (2014), and it’s happened again with co-creator of Westworld (2016-) Lisa Joy and her solo directing debut in Reminiscence (2021).
Reminiscence takes place in a dystopian Miami, where the flood waters have practically covered the streets in a foot of water. Nick (Hugh Jackman) used a technology that accesses people’s memories (or reminisces) as interrogation techniques in the army. Now as a private citizen he charges nostalgic customers who are either addicted to the past, or who need help finding lost keys with the same technology. One day a woman, Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) walks into Nick’s facility, and Nick is immediately taken by her, however, Mae seems to be involved in an underground world that might just break Nick and his stable life.
Lisa Joy has crafted some of the best episodes of Westworld’s first seasons, and despite that series having diminishing returns with each new entry, it still proves to be entertaining and thought-provoking. However, having written and directed Reminiscence, Joy seems to completely lose sight of such important beats and plot points. Reminiscence feels like a film student’s poor attempt at copying a Nolan film; it is desperate to feel twisty and unpredictable, with you questioning if what you’re seeing is memory or present, but Joy is incapable of making viewers care, or in fact be surprised at all. The supposed plot twists felt like given facts so that when they’re revealed, you scratch your head wondering why the film is being overdramatic with its exposition.
The dialogue and character work are so shoddy, you want to laugh out loud with some of the conversations; not even the likes of Jackman can weave some semblance of dignity with some of the lines, “They say that only the wealthy and rats survived the Titanic, the barons here are both.” There is a facepalming use of voiceover to overexplain everything, so that Joy completely forgets to use her camera and visual work to do much of the talking. Joy clearly wants to create a futuristic noir, similar perhaps to Blade Runner (1982), however, she resorts to the worst of the noir cliches, with an underwritten femme fatale, and a cardboard cutout detective. At least Ridley Scott’s film had a sense of style and atmosphere, you felt that future and world. Reminiscence hinges on the romance between Nick and Mae, but only a couple of scenes are dedicated to them and there is a complete lack of chemistry or significant moments that make us want to root or even know this couple. As such, you never care about the stakes or the fate of the characters.
The setting of a futuristic Miami is also wasted, with the most bland use of production design and cinematography in a sci-fi film I’ve seen in a while. There is no sense of style or atmosphere, no creativity as to trying to predict what the future will bring. Joy becomes too engrossed in explaining every detail verbally to viewers that the visual aspects of the film are completely abandoned to mediocre and forgettable results.
In the end, Reminiscence is a film trying to imitate the best of Nolan, you get hints of Inception (2010) and Westworld, but it becomes a pale reflection with horrendous writing and directing. In that case, it just makes me want to watch such Nolan films instead. I truly believe Joy is an accomplished filmmaker, I’ve seen as much in her previous work, but Reminiscence is the completely wrong direction of where she should be heading.