Back in 2019, I wrote a science fiction mystery novel set in near-future Baltimore. Fusing cyberpunk with classic noir, I fancied myself quite literary for weaving in allusions to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. But I ultimately shelved the project because beneath the flooded streets and flickering neon, the story lacked soul.
Transplanting the pieces a thousand miles southward didn’t change that.
Netflix’s sci-fi film Reminiscence echoes similar elements to my erstwhile novel, except in a climate-ravaged Miami beset by rising seas. “Drylander” barons stake out inland property, relegating poorer citizens to flooded real estate along the “sunken coast”. Or so the voiceover tells us in hardboiled detective-story style. The circumstances, and those most affected by it, are barely explored. Characters mention wars, but never reveal who was fighting over what. Social and environmental collapse are just an apocalyptic backdrop for a groaningly predictable love story. Throwaway references to the Orpheus myth seem less like allusion than flailing for firmer narrative ground.
Nor is Reminiscence’s namesake technological gimmick used to full effect. Hugh Jackman plays the operator of a neural nostalgia parlor, where clients escape their bleak realities by revisiting happy memories. Naturally, these recollections provide clues to a mystery plot. It could have been a clever story mechanic, had the writers played with the fallibility of human minds. Instead, the protagonist just spots persons of interest in brain-streamed video clips, like a low-rent Minority Report minus the ethical debates. Even Jackman, whose performances I usually enjoy even when he’s not adamantium-clawed and shirtless, lacked verve.
Drug deals and murders aren’t the only crimes revealed in these “reminiscences”: they also exhibit the lazy, reductive sexism that plagues female characters, especially in sci-fi. In an early montage of parlor clients’ memories, the women’s cherished moments all concern romance or reproduction. Where are the good times with friends? Professional triumphs? Blissful interludes alone with nature? The highlight reels of female lives are not limited to babies and boyfriends. Unimaginative gender portrayals continue when the requisite femme fatale oozes through the door, dressed like Jessica Rabbit. The flimsy plot follows in appropriately cartoonish fashion, from “I knew she was trouble the minute she walked in” to “it started as a con, but then I fell in love with you for real!”
It’s a shame, because this could have been a decent movie. Mystery and sci-fi can fuse brilliantly when handled well, and the writers created opportunities to do it. Yet they left the latter unexplored, and paid the former only superficial homage. Marlowesque narration! Crooked cops! A chanteuse with a secret! Popular tropes alone don’t capture the essence of noir, just as a few boats in Miami’s streets don’t constitute cli-fi. Rather than plunge into the depths of its vision, Reminiscence dabbles in the shallows, ending up as insubstantial as a holographic memory.