A most welcome trend of late has been the rise of the “art-house” science fiction film, and although such movies have been with us for a long time (nearly every French New Wave director made at least one science fiction film), the success of Shane Carruth’s Primer in 2004 has really spurred their production ever since. Typically, such movies are independently-made, often from outside the United States, and are aimed specifically at a usually older film-going demographic that prefers movies that take their time to reveal themselves and do so mostly through dialogue instead of action. Marjorie Prime is one of the best recent movies of this type, ably demonstrating the ability of genre cinema to craft stories as sophisticated and character-driven as its written equivalent.
In the near future, Marjorie (Lois Smith), an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, makes use of an innovative technology to keep the memory of her late husband Walter (Jon Hamm) alive, a hologram AI that replicates his physical likeness perfectly. But the “Prime” program requires that the user generate the hologram’s identity through mutual discussion, and with Marjorie’s memories and conversational skills disintegrating, Walter Prime’s remains incomplete. Marjorie’s daughter Tess (Geena Davis) resents the intrusion of the holographic stranger into the family dynamic; as she laments, her mother treats the artificial intelligence better and with more compassion and respect than she did her own daughter, although she doesn’t seem to notice that she herself is replicating her mother’s possessive and insensitive behavior. Tess’s husband Jon (Tim Robbins) is more sympathetic towards her mother’s plight, and tries to assist in filling in for Walter the gaps that Marjorie can’t close. When Marjorie finally dies, Tess continues the cycle when she purchases a hologram of her mother (the “Marjorie Prime” of the title) to come to terms with both her grief and anger, a cycle that, it is clear, will continue down the family line.
Although based on a play, the movie shares some thematic affinities with Michael Almereyda’s earlier science fiction screenplays for Steve DeJarnatt’s cult item Cherry 2000 and Wim Wender’s Until the End of the World. Like DeJarnatt’s film, it is about artificial simulacra being used by people unable to have the intimate relationships they yearn for, and it shares with the Wenders movie the premise of the invention of a sophisticated electronic recording format to preserve memories, in both instances it being our impressions of individuals and events and not their actual representation. In all three movies, a new technology designed specifically to cure loneliness and repair heartbreak instead has the unintended consequence of compelling its users to further isolate themselves emotionally from others. This also brings to mind some of Theodore Sturgeon’s most personal and heartfelt stories, such as “Slow Sculpture” and especially “When You Care, When You Love,” also about a woman trying to restore life to her deceased lover through replication technology (cloning, in this case). If the film’s themes are most reminiscent of Sturgeon, then the execution brings to mind Alfred Bester’s method of storytelling; many in the audience said afterwards they found the film’s strange dialogue patterns more puzzling or disconcerting than effective, although of course their effectiveness lies in precisely in the way they discomfit the viewer. The jagged dialogue exchanges between human characters and holograms is actually more reflective of how people actually talk in conversation than most movie dialogue, which is driven instead by our expectations of what constitutes an ideal conservation. The vocalized pauses and awkward exchanges suggest that our conversations with artificial intelligence will ultimately be not that much different than those with people nowadays…even those we love.
A movie such as this is driven not just by the dialogue itself but by its delivery, and fortunately the cast is for the most part more than up to the challenge. I was fortunate enough to catch a special screening where Lois Smith herself was in attendance, and she invests the role with the same thoughtfulness and sensitivity that has characterized her other work throughout her brilliant career. Just as Marjorie must take steps in recreate her husband fully, Smith reveals the character to us gradually and in bits and pieces, reflecting not just the slow loss of her own cognitive abilities but her active struggle to hold on to her own identity as well as her memories of others. Even though Smith has surprisingly little screen time, she nonetheless appropriately succeeds in leaving an indelible imprint and her character’s presence is felt even when absent; it’s no wonder there has been Oscar talk for her performance. Smith is ably supported by the excellent performances of both Geena Davis and especially Tim Robbins. In my review of Arrival, I mentioned my Whitaker-Robbins rule, which maintains that any science fiction film featuring Forrest Whitaker or Tim Robbins can’t be any good. Twice now within this year, that law has been broken. Although Robbins gave the worst performances of his career in Howard the Duck and Mission to Mars, he gives one of his finest in this particular science fiction film, probably his best work since his Oscar-winning turn in Mystic River. The sole weak performance is by Jon Hamm, who uses the same boring monotone delivery he used in The Congress. Although his mechanical performance may seem appropriate for the hologram Walter, he also throws in exaggerated facial expressions that are more annoying than effective, and it also doesn’t help that Hamm humanizes his delivery only slightly in flashbacks to the “real” Walter.
The movie has other flaws. Despite the relatively short running time, it moves quite slowly and feels longer than it actually is. Both the three-act structure and limited sets and locations make its stage origins obvious, and Almereyda’s direction doesn’t always help us to forget this. And as mentioned earlier, some people I have spoken to have said that the unusual dialogue patterns were too confusing and disconcerting, but I regard this not as a flaw but as a device to establish the film’s science fiction premise and credentials. There is very little visually to define this as a typical science fiction film, no futuristic sets or obvious special effects, but as when reading a story in the genre, we pick up that it belongs to it by paying attention to what the characters say. Marjorie Prime is the type of movie more likely to appeal to science fiction readers than those fans who are primarily spectators.