Some sci-fi efforts avert futuristic exhibitionism and tread on more subtle lines; where the future setting is fodder to a director’s more personal story and philosophical questions. Such is the case with Marjorie Prime, a delicate sci-fi film which showcases the intricacies of how the future plays out in the everyday; the discernments of technological innovation influencing factors such as communication, work, play, personal relationships which affect our overall physical and mental well-being. All themes that director Michael Almereyda has sublimely concocted; creating a familiar looking realm, set mid this century, focusing on artificial intelligence used for emotional relief for the frail and ailing; in this case 85-year-old Marjorie (Lois Smith), a former concert musician who is loosing the battle with dementia.
We find Marjorie in her living room of her airy house over-looking the ocean, conversing with the dashingly handsome Walter (John Hamm) whose all sophistically dressed and impeccable mannered. Walter is a hologram of Marjorie’s husband who died 15 years prior. The 3D version of Walter we see is from his physically fit 40s. He is designed to keep Marjorie company, cushioning her slow descent into mental decay. He entertains her with shared memories; ones fed to him by Marjorie’s daughter Jess (Geena Davis) and her husband Jon (Tim Robbins); but also, ones that Marjorie reveals to him over time, which he repeats back. Jess is concerned about her mother’s condition, suspicious of the prime; questioning the reliability of the memories that he regurgitates but also exacerbated by the caretaker Julie’s (Stephanie Andujar) inability to look after Marjorie properly. As the film unfolds we see a sudden shift in Marjorie as she becomes lucid; only for viewers to realise that is a Marjorie prime, the real one has passed away. Complicating things further, we are taken further into the future where we see Jon discuss Tess’s suicide with a reboot of Tess who is then introduced to her granddaughter.
Featuring the work of the most current and sought after indie cinematographer around, Sean Price Williams (Listen Up Philip, GoodTime), who gives a refined lightness over proceedings, as he allows for an abundance of natural bright light to enter scenes, lightening them up. Obvious comparisons to be made with the likes of Spike Jonze’s Her or Alex Garland’s Ex Machina but also of TV Show Black Mirror,specifically its Season 3 San Junipero episode; sharing the same ambient mood and weightless feeling; where time is suspended and memories are revisited, explored and altered. Like in these films there is a muted and understated futuristic representation, but also a slowness in plot pace which for allows for deeper character exploration.
Almereyda's paints a sparse futuristic picture; minimalism at its best. The set is tastefully curated yet restrained, almost clinical, in this Long Island beach house. The beach house echoes a present day architecturally designed home; one found in the latest Elle Decoration magazine. Clothing is monotone dark and sporty, muted coloured décor, nominal furniture, streamlined glassware and utensils; all tucked away neatly behind some virtual cupboard.
Lois Smith is outstanding as Marjorie, a connoisseur by now having played the role twice at its highly acclaimed off-Broadway production (Almeyreda adapts the play with the same name by Jordan Harrison). Marjorie's sports a perpetual puzzled facial expression as she tries to decipher a non-sensical world but you can see an underlying stern spirit, unwilling to give up. Fluctuating from happy to tremendously sad; Smith's convinces with the gamut of mental symptoms of dementia she displays. Hamm is equally brilliant as the suave prime; probably a career best performance since Don Draper. Neatly groomed, composed and highly articulate; balancing sincere compassion with machine-like behaviour, his permanently erect posture betrays non-human credentials. There is also the welcome presence by the brilliantly exceptional Davis as the guarded daughter, displaying great sensitivity to her role as she is overcome and unable to cope with her mother’s slow decline.
Things become slightly convoluted in the later part of the film; when Marjorie switches from senile to lucid or as the main characters are re-introduced as primes, its perhaps too sudden and unexplained,the transtion is rather clumsy. Furthermore the film doesn’t completely manage to shake off its theatrical texture; attributed to the dialogue, language, leisurely pace and the scarcity of scenery change. However on this occasion its not such a bad thing; the theatricality works, allowing for the film to be more dialogue driven and provide greater psychological evaluation of characters.
Marjorie Prime perhaps questions the validity of memories; what are we when we lose all our memories? If we have the deceased love one in front of us, do we still mourn their loss? Almeyreda suggests probably not. Walter’s simulation was unable to fully satisfy Marjorie; at one point, she becomes aggravated at the prime's automated response and his insincere robotic empathy and calls out for the real Walter. She wanted the real thing; instinctual, innate, human interaction.
Words by Daniel Theophanous