As featured in Indie Entertainment Magazine.
Marjorie Prime opens with an out of focus shot of ocean waves rolling slowly into shore. The setting sun scintillates on the surface and almost feel like a starry foreshadowing of the long night to come. Tense and haunting orchestrations play over the top and the main title appears on screen. Within the first shot Director Michael Almereyda creates the tone and theme that is carefully explored in the movie: time, memory, and mortality.
Adapted from a Pulitzer nominated play by Jordan Harrison, Marjorie Prime is a fresh take on the ever expanding role of technology in our lives; but perhaps in a more somber fashion. Whereas works like Alex Garland’s Ex Machina and HBO’s Westworld are skeptical about the continual development of technology, Almereyda’s approach is, to quote a line, “you might as well be friendly with it.”
Set 20-minutes into the future, Marjorie Prime revolves around the titular character Marjorie, acted by Lois Smith, who is in the last stage of life and is beset by fading memory. An artificially intelligent hologram who takes the form of her late husband, Walter(Jon Hamm), takes the edge off of old age by continually reminiscing with Marjorie about their life together. Walter is a Prime, which is a newly developed technology designed to help people cope with and process death. Similar to how Siri or Google get better at personalizing our content the more we interact with them, Walter Prime can only better emulate the deceased Walter by interacting with Marjorie and other characters. He is a ghostly and undying echo breathed into life by the memories of others. But he exists not to haunt the living about the dead, but to comfort the living with the visage of the dead.
Skeptical of this interaction between her mother and a computer is Marjorie’s daughter Tess, played by Geena Davis. Tess cautiously eyes Walter Prime and is ever hesitant to have genuine interactions with him. But her skepticism is balanced by her husband, Jon (Tim Robbins), whose willingness to embrace the technology allows them to discuss the pros and cons of having Walter Prime around. All of this, of course, is undergirded by Walter Prime’s soft and not-quite haunting demeanor.
The themes of time, memory, and mortality are continually woven through the subtle and slowly paced workings of the plot. The film has the feel of a careful contemplation rather than a direct and definitive statement. Just as Walter Prime’s identity is formed by memories, so is Marjorie’s declining life. Her forgetfulness makes her susceptible to altered and edited memories which further degrades her own identity. Mostly, this is for her benefit, as she is able to reach back, through conversation with Walter Prime and reshape her past to be better than it actually was and spares her from mental anguish. The sound of waves is ever present in the background and is the perfect image for her continually eroding mind. In the end of all things, the question of technologies increasingly intimate place in our lives is never answered, only explored. It is left to the audience to decide.
The fact that the film is an adaptation of a play is apparent sometimes in that it sometimes feels like a bottle episode. Nearly the entire film is set inside a beach house and the scenes never really travel much place else. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Lois Smith and Jon Hamm shine in their respective roles. Smith, who is reprising the role of Marjorie that she play on stage, has a multi layered performance. With sharp wit and sometimes soulful nostalgia, Smith is the heart of the film. But for Hamm, who is normally oozing with charm and charisma, the role of Walter Prime forces him to act through the stiffness of an artificial intelligence. But act through it he does, conjuring a compassionate and yearning AI from the holographic air.
Almereyda ultimately succeeds with this film. Marjorie Prime has the feel of a movie that will be discussed at length in academic journals for what it has to say about technology and what will be left of us after we die. For those wanting a soulful meditation, and especially for those unable to see Harrison’s original play, absolutely grab some popcorn and grab a ticket.