4 out of 5 stars
You would be forgiven for thinking Michael Almereyda’s minimalist science-fiction film Marjorie Prime takes place in the present. Set in the “near future”, where artificial intelligence is the stuff of everyday, an 86 year old woman with dementia, Marjorie, lives in a gorgeous Long Island beach house with her daughter Tess, her son-in-law Jon, and a holographic recreation of her deceased husband, Walter, as a young man. Though the cyborg/hologram premise is about as science fiction as it gets, there are very few indicators of the “near future” in the movie — no sleek smart homes with robot butlers, no hover-cars or teleportation portals, no technological jargon in the dialogue. Even the fact that Walter Prime is, in actuality, a computer program and not a flesh-and-bone being is only apparent in small details. It’s only evident when his stiff, sitting projection on the couch fades away after talking with Marjorie, when a character throws a drink at him in anger and it merely sprays through him, or in the audible quirks of a machine trying to approximate a human voice.
The wonder and beauty of Marjorie Prime is exactly this: Almereyda eschews flashy computer-generated-imagery and crafts a science fiction story that seems like it could happen now, a story that veers into magical realism. Marjorie answers a call on a translucent glowing phone that seems to be the new iPhone XVI, juxtaposed by the waves crashing on the Long Island beach behind her as they have for years and years. It seems perfectly plausible that even now there is an elderly woman somewhere who is forgetting, who is already being told the story of her life by a machine. Almereyda’s choice to augment the real special effects of life — unpredictable family dynamics, all-too-human emotions, and genuinely strained conversations — to meditate on what it means to be human in the age of technology is unexpected and delightful.
The result is a domestic drama primarily contained within the living room and the kitchen. Scenes of daily life fade in and out with a slow black wipe transition, from afternoon heart-to-hearts to terse arguments to opening the mail, almost as if the viewer is waking up or dreaming along with the characters. The plot is assembled like a doll house from conversations where Walter Prime narrates Marjorie’s own memories back to her, and where Jon and Tess argue over the ethics of having Marjorie’s husband come back, somewhat, as a young man. Family secrets are unravelled in late night drinking confessions, a breakdown occurs over a hidden polaroid and the actions of Julie, the Hispanic caretaker who Tess believes is taking advantage of Marjorie’s illness, become a cause for consternation in the household. Throughout all of these complicated, introspective moments is the quiet existence of Walter Prime, an embodiment of the timeless question: what is memory, and what impact does it have on our relationships? Is it true, as one character intones, that “all long-term relationships are impossible”?
This is not the film to watch if you like your science-fiction solely explosive, or if you want operatic space armageddons about humanoid machines becoming smarter than us and taking over the Earth. Alternatively, Marjorie Prime offers close-ups of human faces rather than wide-shots of cyborg destruction. This is the film to watch if you want to be invited into a house in the “near future”, as artificially pristine as a show flat right out of a Sears catalogue. This is a film to watch both tight-knit and disentangled relationships stretched taut by technology.
Ultimately, Marjorie Prime is a film about the performance of human relationships. It works so well largely because of the supreme acting of Lois Smith, who plays Marjorie, and Jon Hamm, who plays Walter. Together, Smith and Hamm manage to make to Marjorie and Walter Prime’s interactions wholly believable and almost tender.
At times though, strangely enough, the obvious stage history of the film’s script runs the risk of undercutting its cinematic qualities. Certain lines of dialogue, such as Tess and Jon discussing William James’ research on memory, verge on being too heavy handed when uttered in intimate conversation rather than dramatized on the stage. Though the acting is nothing less than superb, I almost wish there was more experimental cinematography to frame the actors — more temporally ambiguous flashbacks, more dreamlike collages, more visual play.
That being said, Marjorie Prime is an artfully rendered thinkpiece on remembrance that this reviewer will not forget anytime soon.
Jamie Uy is a columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.