"This isn’t science fiction in the far-flung future," Lisa Joy, best known as co-showrunner of the sci-fi series Westworld, tells GamesRadar+ while sitting down to discuss her new movie, Reminiscence.
On the face of it, it’s a bold declaration at odds with the thriller’s setting – an achingly beautiful future Miami ravaged by flooding – and premise: the story centers on a man, Nick (Hugh Jackman), who runs a business that helps people relive their memories using a special device – for a fee, of course. Joined by the loyal Watts (Thandiwe Newton, in her first role since reclaiming the original spelling of her name), Nick crosses paths with the mysterious Mae (Rebecca Ferguson). As he dives deeper into both her memories and his own amid a blooming relationship, Nick loses his grip on the present.
Reminiscence, it seems, fits snugly into your usual sci-fi bracket. But its director insists this isn’t science fiction as you might know it. For Joy, her debut feature was a chance to explore something far more personal and approachable – merely using the technology and setting as a way in.
"It’s just this universal thing: we are all passengers [to memory] every day, whether intentionally or not," she explains. "We get whisked away by some strange thought that transports us from where we are, to where we once were. It’s just a universal condition and it’s one that I think is so evocative and emotional, and it’s so telling of who we are as humans, that I was just dying to explore."
"I wanted this to be as realistic as possible… I wanted it to be relatable and warm. And I didn't want the futurism to distract from the emotional accessibility of the film itself."
Creating a new future
When it comes to building futures, there aren’t many better visionaries around. Joy has already mapped out the 21st Century’s unique technology-based fears in Westworld and is going post-apocalyptic in the upcoming series Fallout, based on the video game. But it’s Reminiscence that feels the most paradoxically immediate due to its combination of universality and the backdrop of a world besieged by floods.
From Reminiscence’s very first shot, Nick’s journey is told with assurity and confidence. Despite being set in Miami, Joy actually looked East for her inspirations – and deliberately sidestepped a sci-fi classic in the process.
"I definitely looked at Akira," she says. "Blade Runner is a beautiful movie, though I did want [Reminiscence] to feel quite different to Blade Runner. I wanted it to feel much more analogue than the more digital, holographic things they had there – the coldness of the world that [director Ridley Scott] captured beautifully."
"I consciously steered it towards a more dilapidated warmth that I thought might organically happen in Miami. One of the references for that was Spirited Away… the train scene where they’re going across the water. I was like ‘If anybody can make anything close to this beautiful, can we at least try?’"
Whereas movies set decades into the future often look to the stars or invent entirely new worlds, Reminiscence involves a degree of realism. And given our planet’s accelerated fight against climate change, Joy’s approach feels more timely than ever.
"I really worked with what I thought might actually happen," Joy says. "Miami is a beautiful place, art deco, [and] that kind of classic bones-to-building is so iconic. Those aren’t buildings that you rip down. I knew that they would endure. I knew that when the waters rose, it would be terrible but also given an odd beauty. I really drew from references in a lot of my time in Asia – the floating markets in Thailand, for example – but also Europe and to try to make the world still shine warmly for people, even though it was damaged."
Say it Saint Joe
It was Joy’s global, all-encompassing vision that pulled actor Daniel Wu, who plays crime lord Saint Joe, towards the project. "She called me to describe the character and she talked about how we hadn’t really seen an Asian American character like this on screen before," Wu tells us. "She just really wanted this character to pop. She wanted to change the way Asian American males are often emasculated on screen."
Wu, who counts Gary Oldman’s performance as the dreadlocked Drexl in True Romance as among the inspirations for his swaggering villain, worked in tandem with the director to dive into the character’s creation.
"She filled in a lot of backstory – there’s mention of a war that happens. Race is involved because my character gets interned, so that plays a huge part in what Saint Joe is because he’s got a massive chip on his shoulder," Wu says.
That even involves diving deep into another forgotten memory: that of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War Two. "A lot of people don’t know 200,000 Japanese Americans were interned during World War Two," he says. "Their property was taken, their money was taken… In some ways, Lisa was able to use parts of our history and put it into this character."
That echoes Joy’s mantra. The sense of everyone being "passengers" – as she puts it – to memory extends even to her actors’ performances, drawing in some of the tragic untold histories from the real world’s past.
And what of the future? For Reminiscence, ironically, there isn’t likely to be one. The movie, which is releasing simultaneously on HBO Max and cinemas on August 20, is that rare thing: an original IP that has no plans to build out a franchise. And although the world of Reminiscence is rich and full of life, Joy is a director who always wants to go somewhere new.
"I didn’t really think of this as a franchise," Joy says. "I have the next project that I want to do in my mind. But it’s not really a franchise. The works that I explore tend to have similar themes and tones and scope, but I never really wanted to repeat myself. I also think that, for actors, they always want a new challenge. I would love to work with these actors again, but I would make them do all sorts of crazy stuff."
Reminiscence is in cinemas in the US and UK and streaming on HBO Max in the US from August 20. Before then, check out all the most exciting upcoming movies heading our way.