Review: Marjorie Prime (2017)


Marjorie Prime is not about artificial intelligence, but rather the role of memory in shaping our identity and relationships with others. If anything, the presence of AI in the film reveals the mystery of human beings as conscious creatures rather than the possibilities of machine consciousness. This film challenges us to consider how the ability to love someone is intimately bound up in the act of remembering. Marjorie Prime manages to do a lot with a little, exploring the effect of technology and time upon human identity without relying on lots of special effects or grand visions of the future.

The film, by director Michael Almereyda (Experimenter), is based on the 2014 Pulitzer-nominated play of the same name by Jordan Harrison. It is set in the mid-21st century and follows a woman in her 80s named Marjorie (Lois Smith) who is suffering from bouts of dementia. In an effort to bring her some kind of comfort, her grown daughter, Tess (Geena Davis), and Tess’s husband, John (Tim Robbins), provide her the latest in elder-care: a computer simulation of Marjorie’s late-husband, Walter. This Walter “Prime” (Jon Hamm) is a holographic simulation of the original Walter as Marjorie chooses to remember him, in the prime of his life when she first met him as a young woman. Tess is uncomfortable with this simulation of her deceased father and refuses to engage with it. A Prime’s successful simulation is based on the memories of the person that it is able to gather from online archives and grows more complete through conversations with those that knew them. Thus, Marjorie Prime literalizes the way that the memories of others essentially shape our legacy.

However, memory isn’t always reliable. And the danger of forgetting—or wilful omission—lurks in every interaction. Marjorie’s interactions with Walter Prime are meant to help her hold on to a past that is slipping away in her dementia. But Walter Prime is also shaped by the memories others had of him, and these don’t always match Marjorie’s own memories. Walter Prime’s memories have been shaped by the conversations he has had with John and others as much as by Marjorie’s. The film explicitly deals with the fact of being confronted by the past when it doesn’t match your own memory of the event. Which remembering takes precedence? What is an “objective” memory? What does it suggest about our identity that it is so strongly based in memory, which is hardly objective? As one character notes, “Nobody is who he was, or will be who he is now.”

Being based on a play, the film retains much of the stage-bound feel in its setting and focus on dialogue. The film is set almost entirely at the family’s beach home in the Hamptons, for instance. It would be easy to accuse the film of being “un-cinematic,” but Almereyda does a fair bit to inject a cinematic sensibility into the film. For example, he uses close-ups to draw the viewer’s attention the characters’ faces at specific instances—something unavailable to stage drama. As well, the film makes clever and careful use of editing, especially in the later stretches to play with our perception of time as the film jumps forward scene-to-scene, relying on the sameness of the setting to lull us into familiarity (our own memories of the earlier scenes), while the dialogue reveals what has changed and who characters are or have become.

The film is very dialogue heavy, which may make this film feel like more of an intellectual curiosity than a fully developed drama at times. The actors all give excellent performances here, which is important to the success of the film given the dialogue-heavy script. The film progresses through the interactions between characters. Lois Smith shines in the lead role here, after memorable supporting turns in films over many decades, such as Five Easy Pieces and, more recently, Minority Report and this year’s Lady Bird. It’s a rare substantial and nuanced role for a woman in her 80s and Smith gives it her all. Geena Davis shows a gift for dramatic nuance, and Tim Robbins is good as Marjorie’s son-in-law, and the driving force between the family’s adoption of the Prime program. And Jon Hamm, while not revelatory, is perfectly cast as the younger memory of Marjorie’s late husband. As Walter Prime learns more and more about “himself,” Hamm modifies his performance to introduce a more human and relaxed feel. It’s an example of how such a science fiction conceit can be expressed through acting rather than just special effects, and one of the film’s small pleasures.

Marjorie Prime is ultimately most enjoyable for the questions it raises, rather than the answers it provides. It can never quite goes as far as a film like Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, or even this year’s Blade Runner 2049 (to consider films that share thematic interests) in presenting a vision of the future. This film’s world is for the most part our own, more like Spike Jonze’s Her in its presentation of a near-future of bourgeois self-absorption. In fact, I reflected on the fact that Walter and Marjorie’s generation is very close that of my own. In one scene they talk about an old movie they try to remember, My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), which reminded me that I was watching a film about my own generation’s future (at least the future of those of us who came of age in the 1990s and early-2000s). Thus, it is a film that prompts and rewards self-reflection even as it delves into uncomfortable territory of family trauma and loss. The film perhaps puts the burden of interpretation too solidly on the audience to feel like it has a clearly presented point of view on everything. But, for this reason it is a film that benefits discussing with others afterwards.

It’s a modest film, but it prompts grand questions. Marjorie Prime is an example of what can be done by a filmmaker with limited resources and talented performers. I’m happy a film like this exists, but I would hate if the economics of filmmaking meant that gifted filmmakers were limited to making science fiction on this scale entirely.

Marjorie Prime (USA, 2017)

7 out of 10

Written and directed by Michael Almereyda, based on the play by Jordan Harrison; starring Lois Smith, Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, Tim Robbins.