Science fiction has been popping up in novel ways here at Sundance, and in the case of Marjorie Prime, it’s a Black Mirror-esque look at a future world where technology helps people deal with grief and the loss of loved ones. Directed by Experimenter’s Michael Almereyda, and based on a play by Jordan Harrison, it stars Jon Hamm as a holographic, AI-driven re-creation of an elderly woman’s dead husband that chats with her to keep her company.
It’s the kind of premise that could go in any number of wild, high-concept directions — like it did in the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back” — but for Almereyda, the science fiction elements are just a framework. He cast Geena Davis, Tim Robbins, and Lois Smith, who deliver fantastic, nuanced performances. And he stays true to his source material, crafting a quiet, beautiful film that ruminates on the way we deal with tragedy and loss. It may not be science fiction in the traditional sense — but where else can you see Jon Hamm play a chatbot?
What’s the genre?
Talking-heads indie drama. It’s obvious that Marjorie Prime started as a play, and while the premise has some speculative future elements, they never get in the way. This is a story about the four main characters, and little else.
What’s it about?
Marjorie (Lois Smith, who also played the role in two different stage productions), is an 83-year-old woman living with her daughter and son-in-law. Marjorie’s mind has started to drift as she’s gotten older, so to help, she’s begun talking to a holographic reproduction of her husband, Walter. The creation — referred to as a “Prime” — is a software-driven blank slate that can take on the characteristics and nuances Marjorie remembers about her husband, even if some of them aren’t exactly true.
Marjorie’s daughter Tess (Geena Davis) has a hard time with the situation, partly because she has unresolved issues with her mother, but also because it’s awfully strange to see a younger version of her father hanging out on the living room couch. As other family members talk to Walter Prime, it becomes clear that the family has been haunted by unspoken secrets and tragedies they’ve never really dealt with.
What’s it really about?
Tragedy and loss, and the way we remember — or choose not to remember — certain things to help us cope. Walter Prime serves as an extended metaphor for our own memories, and how once loved ones are gone, we may conveniently choose to forget the less-savory aspects of their personalities, or otherwise romanticize the past.
But is it any good?
Marjorie Prime is superbly acted, and it’s certainly interesting. Hamm strikes a wonderful balance as a talking re-creation that feels almost human, and the rest of the cast is equally nuanced. Smith and Davis both slowly reveal wounded aspects to their respective characters that have been hidden under years of armor, or washed away by old age and fading memory. Robbins rounds out the quartet as Tess’ husband, the one character able to approach the Prime as the technological creation it is, until the emotional implications affect even him.
Behind the camera, cinematographer Sean Price Williams helps Almereyda craft a meticulous world (though a somewhat sterile one), with brief flashes of color that pop like vivid memories. And composer Mica Levi (Under the Skin, Jackie) creates a layer of mood and atmosphere that demonstrates once again why she’s become such an important figure to watch.
But even with all of that, I can’t say I loved Marjorie Prime. In spite of its technical execution, the film feels like it’s holding the audience at arm’s length, talking about these deep, profound themes in the intellectualized abstract. Ideally, a movie about such vital questions should connect on a deeper level, but while I enjoyed looking at Marjorie Prime, it didn’t resonate emotionally.
What should it be rated?
PG-13, for the mildest of nudity, some language, and what I suppose they call “mature themes.” Death, loss, and mourning qualify as mature themes, right?
How can I actually watch it?
At the moment, Marjorie Prime hasn’t been picked up for distribution. But let’s be real: it’s a movie based on a celebrated play with a stellar cast. Eventually, it will end up at your local arthouse theater for a limited run, before making its way to the glorious world of video-on-demand and streaming.