Screening exclusively at Chicago’s Facets Cinematheque is Michael Almereyda’s sublime and entrancing new film, Marjorie Prime (Recommended). Featuring a coterie of recognizable faces including Tim Robbins, Jon Hamm, and Geena Davis, the no-frills chamber drama presents a series of intriguing moral puzzles through its vivid dialogue and precise (but practical) mise-en-scène. Almereyda disengages from the lofty expectations that come from high-concept science fiction to produce a skeletal yet nevertheless probing work on the nature of memory and legacy. If you afford it the chance, this is the kind of film that cuts straight past the bone and deep into your marrow.
Set in an unmarked yet familiar future, we encounter Marjorie (Lois Smith) having an awkward conversation with Walter (Jon Hamm). The cadence of their conversation is uncomfortable and we realize that Walter is not human but rather a hologram that functions through a sophisticated form of artificial intelligence. Walter, or rather Walter Prime, is a digital recreation of how Marjorie views her idealized form of her husband. Walter Prime becomes increasingly more convincing as Marjorie and the rest of the beach-side household – including Marjorie’s daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and her husband Jon (Tim Robbins) – share stories about Walter and themselves with this Prime version.
If you, like me, found the central diatribe of David Lowery’s A Ghost Story to be a remarkably dunderheaded display of a naïve and hopelessly fatalistic worldview, then Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime offers a welcome tonic. As the film proceeds, Marjorie passes, with Tess then submitting herself to creating a Marjorie Prime to whom she discusses their drama-ridden relationship. Tess, unlike Marjorie, remains skeptical of the use of an artificial intelligence that carries on the memory of her mother, particularly one that she deems to be an inaccurate representation of who her mother used to be. Yet, as Jon reminds Tess, her memory of her mother remains but a singular picture in a tapestry of experiences. Or perhaps put it this way: never trust a child on the subject of their parents.
Perhaps most audacious of all is that Marjorie Prime submits an experience with the not-so-distant future and its technological advances that’s remarkably not cynical. While Tess may be skeptical of talking to her mother in her Prime version, it nevertheless functions as a form of catharsis, whereupon she’s able to confront her past and present in vivid and confrontational ways. But it also serves to underscore the very fluidity and unreliability of our memories: we ourselves can have a fuzzy handling on the details of our past that can shape and reshape the way we remember.
For a film of this nature, it’s difficult not to be reminded of our experiences with other films. And Almereyda outright acknowledges this tendency by including scenes, P.J. Hogan’s My Best Friend’s Wedding. It’s recent films like Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow, Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog, and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius that informed my viewing of Marjorie Prime. Those films spoke to the ideologies and totems that inform our worldview and, in essence, our memories. As Marjorie looks at her hand and ring, the film cuts to a bedside moment with her husband and younger self (Hannah Gross). This is a memory that only she has access to, and as such, will die with. It’s in that sequence where the flush of memory is most vividly captured: cinematographer Sean Price Williams illuminates the bedside and in a warm hue while Almereyda tightly centers the image on Jon Hamm’s face. It’s the one moment in the film where he’s human. And as much comfort as Marjorie may have in talking to his Prime version, it’s the one memory she has of him that remains unfuzzy, palpable, and true.