By Elias Savada.
In a lovely, earth-toned Long Island beach house, Walter Lancaster (Jon Hamm) comes and goes in rather disconcerting fashion. He doesn’t use the door or walk in from another room. He’s just…there. He doesn’t eat much, either. In fact, nothing at all. Then again, he’s just a hologram that pops in and out of the living room as if by a snap of the fingers or a clap of the hands. For a short time he’s been the companion to the woman his real (now dead) self, married. His comportment may be a bit stiff, but he’s there as both a reflection of his former being, to offer cold comfort, as well as a point of focus to absorb life’s details. He’s programmed to become a shared consciousness with those who lived with and loved the real Walter.
Those would be his family: a wife, Marjorie (the wonderful Lois Smith); an 86-year-old matriarch who is aging poorly; her only child, Tess (Geena Davis); and Tess’s heavy-drinking husband, Jon Brody (Tim Robbins). The artificial Walter, who is projected as the husband Marjorie married back in the late 1990’s, can only offer her and the family cold comfort. There are no hugs and kisses, just conversation, because, well, Walter lacks (physical) substance.
There are many forms that Artificial Intelligence will and won’t take before becoming mainstream as advocated in Marjorie Prime, producer-writer-director Michael Almereyda’s latest meditative feature. It’s entirely plausible that what you see in this intimate family drama is what we’ll get. Yet, this sci-fi entry isn’t really a science fictiony affair, at least in the sense of big budget CGI effects and the usual genre tropes. In fact, you won’t learn anything about the Prime process or its incomplete programming, despite being available in 32 languages and having a superb music service subscription. The film is a dramatic story told within a small setting where one, or more, of the house occupants are just what Siri, Alexa, or their current artificially intelligent siblings might evolve to in the film’s fuzzy future, sometime about 30 or so years from now.
Almereyda does like to study the human condition, which he explored most recently in Experimenter (2015), his unsettling, provocative, and intoxicatingly stylized curiosity about socio-psychologist Stanley Milgram, including his early 1960s Yale University “electric shock” experiments. There’s a similar mood in his new film, a sullen meditation on how we interact with and influence one another.
It’s easy to see why the director was drawn to Jordan Harrison’s 2015 play, on which the film is based. The Horton Foote Prize-winning drama premiered in Los Angeles before having an off-Broadway run. Smith, who starred in the work on both coasts, suggested Almereyda take a look at it. He was hooked: “I was intrigued by the premise, the idea that holographic companions might supplement and replace human memory. And Lois was so enthusiastic about it, the least I could do was fly to L.A. to see her do it.” She had already been in two of the director’s films: The Eternal (1998) and The Man Who Came Out Only at Night (2013). No way she wouldn’t be in this adaptation.
Because of the theatrical nature of the film, much of the story is narrative. Almereyda doesn’t want to open it up all that much, but rather use cinema to bring his audience in via closeups, joining Marjorie and gang as they hash and rehash a sad past, with the hope that nuances will make the Prime’s storytelling more engaging. The framework of the play hasn’t been altered, although Almereyda expanded the action beyond the play’s living room, adding some flashbacks (Hannah Gross plays a young version of Marjorie, on the day Walter proposed marriage to her) and some external family outings.
As memories go, the ones that are offered in Marjorie Prime are secondary and tertiary, compiled from the family offering them in various dialogues with Walter, who mostly sits and listens. When he does talk, he’s stilted, or even confused, because his software is only so-so in its efforts at mimicry. His confirmation that information has been input is just, “I’ll remember that now.”
Recollections are fragmented, altered, and even reset in a better light (helped by the muted, bleached out cinematography of Sean Williams), because the group doesn’t want reminders of the betrayals or the sadness of life. Once, Walter Prime stares through a glass door at the living assembled outside (he only works indoors), a ghost held prisoner. His alienation is enforced by Alvin Lucier’s Diamonds, a densely unconventional musical piece (like György Ligeti’s Atmosphères, the abstract piece heard in 2001: A Space Odyssey).
As the film moves towards it denouement, scenes are brief, but separated by months and years. New generations arrive and assist the older ones in moving on toward their end. When the family’s gone, who’s left?
Marjorie Prime is an impressive accomplishment, especially when you factor in the meager 13-day shooting schedule. I was puzzled, though. In a future devoid of Facebook and other social media, can mankind survive on juggled memories? Or, is Marjorie Prime living in a different world where none of this existed? Or, are the people who created the holographic avatars just ignorant of the memories contained in our planet’s vast social and genealogical networks?
Instead, Almereyda keeps his film simple, although I suspect it is more critic than audience friendly. Marjorie Prime offers up apparitions that are psychiatrist, counselor, and confidante. Will mankind survive on such an empty parlor trick, as you can’t rest your weary head on a facsimile? Let’s home Prime 2.0 solves that problem.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).