The ideas that feed into director Michael Almereyda’s screen adaptation of the much-celebrated, Jordan Harrison-written play Marjorie Prime are quite extraordinary, even if the execution of the movie is flawed at times. A “Prime” is a hologram program/artificial intelligence designed, in theory, to comfort those who have lost a loved one. The Prime comes equipped with basic good manners and an inquisitive nature that gets the grieving party to talk at length about the person the hologram resembles, thus informing the Prime about the absent party and thus becoming more like them. Of course, the flaw in this method is that all of the Prime’s specific memories come from a grieving human, whose own memory may be flawed or failing or suppressed.
Harrison’s play makes the point that any memory we experience is actually only a remembrance of the last time we remembered said event; it’s not actually a memory of the event itself. So each time we tap into that memory, it’s being recalled differently—lesser, altered or just plain wrong. Almereyda’s adaptation accomplishes many fine things, including embracing these complex ideas, and how the memory of an elderly woman named Marjorie (the legendary theater actress Lois Smith) might be feeding the Prime of her dead husband Walter (whom she has chosen to have look like he did in his staggeringly handsome prime—thus he’s played by Jon Hamm). Their interactions alternate between comforting and awkward. She’s clearly had her Prime for some time, so he has stories galore to share with her, but they’re all memories that she has fed him. But it’s also clear that Marjorie is suffering from early onset dementia, and how does that factor into this science experiment?
When her grown daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and her husband Jon (Tim Robbins) come to visit her and the Walter Prime, it turns out anything they say to the Prime gets absorbed into his memories of Walter. In a film that is more about ideas that actions, the characters spend a great deal of time talking about the moral and emotional complications of having a Prime around the house. I have zero doubt believing that most people would do anything to avoid grieving, so the idea of a construct that houses an essence of a lost love one makes perfect sense. But the question remains, would such a program actually alleviate grief and suffering, and would it simply underscore the loss the more the Prime becomes like the missing person.
As time passes and other characters pass away, more Primes begin to occupy the film’s cast of characters, and as a result, three of the four primary actors portray both their human selves and their Primes, and the results are quite impressive. If for no other reason, Marjorie Prime is a fantastic acting exercise, with Smith and Davis truly giving distinct and fascinating performances, in which we get to discover the Primes’ learning curve and where their shortcomings exist. The production design and furnishings in the homes where the film is set are meant to be somewhat neutral and uninspired, not wanting to distract in any way from the ideas and acting on display.
The most important question the story deals with what happens when different family members remember various events contradictorily. How do the primes process moments that don’t line up? Even more unnerving, at the end of the film, multiple primes occupy a space like a new, makeshift family and attempt to share stories, some of which don’t line up. While Harrison’s 2014 play (in which Smith originated the part of Marjorie) isn’t really about artificial intelligence, it’s a subject that is taken seriously. The playwright’s intentions are far more human. He’s curious about the way we process memories—both good and bad—and why some events seem to linger in our heads forever while other are jettisoned almost as soon as they happen.
Almereyda is a director who never stops taking chance, whether it be in his Shakespeare adaptations (Hamlet, Cymbeline) or in his unconventional tellings of otherwise conventional stories, such as his landmark vampire tale Nadja or his version of the Milgram experiments in the early 1960s, Experimenter. With Marjorie Prime, he’s taking a wholly original story and making it accessible, even if he’s drained some of the emotion from the visuals. Thankfully, his actors breathe a great deal of life and color back into the proceedings, and the result is captivating, haunting and ultimately quite moving. The film opens today at Facets Cinémathèque.
To read my exclusive interview with Marjorie Prime co-stars Lois Smith and Jon Hamm, go to Ain’t It Cool News.