Reminiscence, a film depicting a machine that can transport people back in time to a memory they experienced, was inspired by writer-director Lisa Joy’s fixation with memories. Joy described it as a science-fiction contraption she wants could exist.
“The more you revisit a memory, the more you’re aware of the subjective layers that you place on it,” Joy told UPI in a Zoom interview. “The idea of being able to go back and experience it unfiltered, completely real, is compelling to me.”
The film, out Friday, follows Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman), who often consults with police, placing suspects in his reminiscence tank to find clues in their memories. Nick also helps his paying customers relive cherished memories.
Joy said she thought about the inevitability that all memories disappear when the people who experienced them die. Even the reminiscence tank requires living clients to explore their memories.
“I just wanted to acknowledge how beautiful those moments are, even if they do get snuffed out one day,” Joy said.
Nick meets Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) when she comes to him for help locating lost keys. When Mae disappears after a romance with Nick, he becomes obsessed with finding her in his memories and those of Mae’s associates.
Joy said the mystery allowed her to explore themes of memory while revealing clues about the story. Joy said the Nick character could be a warning about the dangers in becoming too obsessed with one’s memories.
“I do think that if you live too much in the past, there is a risk that you’re not building toward the future,” Joy said. “Nostalgia is good as a spice, but not necessarily always as a main course.”
In her exploration of memory, Joy said she derives lessons from mistakes she made or remembers happy times when she feels stressed.
“Our own backstories become a cautionary tale for ourselves at times,” Joy said.
The reminiscence tank displays a live-action replay of the experience, which Nick can observe objectively. Joy’s idea is that the tank physically reflects an objective scene that is not influenced by the individual’s preferences.
Joy, 44, has a background in science fiction as the co-creator of HBO’s Westworld with her husband, Jonathan Nolan. Joy and Nolan reinvented a robotic amusement park as an experimental site for human cloning for the series.
Joy filmed experiments to illustrate the footage projected by the memory tank before getting the go-ahead for the film. Joy’s exam was performed by Angela Sarafyan, who stars in Joy’s HBO series Westworld.
“We were all just doing it in our free time,” Joy said. “Having collaborators like that — that just grow and build with you and explore — made this film possible.”
In the actual film, Joy cast Sarafyan as Elsa, a client who pays Nick to take her back to a single night with a former lover. Joy also cast Westworld star Thandiwe Newton as Nick’s partner, Watts.
The future of Reminiscence also posits a world in which cities flood due to climate change and wars break out. The state of the world is another reason why customers frequent Nick’s reminiscence tank — to return to happier times.
“When I wrote it, it felt more speculative at the time,” Joy said. “Now, it feels sadly a little too prescient.”
One of the film’s locations, the Sunken Coast, was constructed at the abandoned Six Flags in New Orleans. The theme park was closed after it was damaged by flooding during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The location also triggered memories for Joy, she said. Joy staged a chase scene through a flooded market reminiscent of the floating markets in Thailand she frequented during summers as a child.
“I loved the idea that even in a sinking world, even in a damaged imperfect world, humans are able to eke out beauty and meaning,” Joy said.
That chase scene also fulfilled a longtime dream of Joy’s. She said she imagined herself as an action hero, so now gets to direct heroes on Westworld and in Reminiscence.
“Other people might dream about being singers or astronauts,” Joy said. “I used to dream of defending people from ninjas.”
Reminiscence opens in theaters and premieres on HBO Max Friday.
Cast members Thandiwe Newton (R) and her daughter, Nico Parker. Photo by Jim Ruymen