What would you do if you could conjure up deceased friends and relatives and re-visit your past? That is the premise of “Marjorie Prime” a new film based on a Pulitzer Prize-nominated play by Jordan Harrison which made a splash at Sundance. I found the film more suggestive than the play. The film is set in a future where computer programs of deceased loved ones can be rendered as holograms or “primes.” Marjorie (Lois Smith) is an elderly woman suffering dementia who has just begun meeting with a “prime” who is a younger version of her late husband Walter (Jon Hamm). The prime also interacts with Marjorie’s caregiver daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and her husband Jon (Tim Robbins); in the process, Walter “prime” learns more about the man he is in everyone’s memory, while Marjorie tries to hang onto a past that is slipping away.
The premise is a rich invitation to wonder about what and whom we would revisit, what would we say to them, and if we could speak the heretofore unspoken, how would that change us and our relationships? What would we choose to remember? And what about those memories? What is real and what has been altered by the very act of remembering? What is history, and what constitutes identity?
Writer/director Michael Almereyda works in a muted pallet inviting us inward, the mood meditative, the characters seeming to breathe the air of dreams. There are long takes, quiet, controlled conversations as everyone gingerly moves around Marjorie as she recollects her past with Walter. Lois Smith and Jon Hamm’s scenes together are like the ebb and flow of the tides; he draws her out with an eery blankness, searching to become the Walter she remembers and needs. She rises to him, her face a canvas of faded beauty and receding memory, some vividly floating on the surface, some pulled under by the relentless undertow of her dementia and a family tragedy embedded in her past. Smith’s performance is especially lucid, almost transparent as the light comes in and goes out of her eyes.
Geena Davis is affecting as Marjorie’s daughter Tess, on edge as she steers through her anger, resentment, and yearning for a mother who is slipping away and whom she must now physically care for. Tim Robbins as Tess’s husband provides ballast in a sea of emotions; with highball in hand and genuine tenderness for his wife, he carefully navigates their relationship which he frankly describes as “impossible,” as “all relationships” are. Amid the betrayals and disappointments he acknowledges all we can do is “work through it…if we say we want it.” The weather outside is seen through large clear windows, and mirrors the turbulence within–windstorms and rain, snow on a beach, an unexpected sunny day; inside these characters sort through the wreckage to see what they can salvage.
Halfway through, the film’s momentum slows down and things get a bit murky as we shift back and forth in time, keeping track of who is who, what they know and when they know it. It’s fair to say that the premise doesn’t deliver huge dramatic impact, but the film has a poignant, reverberant quality shared by another film– A GHOST STORYstarring casey Affleck as a dead husband who lurks around his young wife (Rooney Mara), stalled in transition and caught in a loop of time. It’s a beauty of a movie that I recommend as a companion piece to “Marjorie Prime” and draws us inward to contemplate the impermanence of this mortal life and the meaning with which we invest it.
The conclusion of “Marjorie Prime” is disturbing and posits a strange scenario requiring us to consider what happens to the artificial intelligences we have created. Earlier in the film, Tess remarks that we only “remember a memory–not the source… memories are always in the process of dissolving”– even as they survive. If we are our memories, then who exactly are we? Pursue the mystery this weekend and see MARJORIE PRIME.