Mark Reviews Movies

Marjorie Prime


Director: Michael Almereyda

Cast: Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, Tim Robbins, Lois Smith

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 1:38

Release Date: 8/18/17 (limited); 8/25/17 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 24, 2017

The intriguing hook of Marjorie Prime, writer/director Michael Almereyda's adaptation of Jordan Harrison's play, is that the dead can come back to life in the form of a hologram, controlled by an advanced artificial intelligence. The computer program learns from stories and descriptions provided by the dead person's family members. It's supposed to provide comfort, and it does in a way, because the surviving relatives basically program the computer to be a form of the loved one as they want him or her to be. A widow in her 80s, for example, might want to remember her husband as a younger man, so he appears to her in that way, sitting on and standing in front of a couch, because the hologram's range is limited.

The question is whether or not this is enough or, on the end of the movie's debate, even helpful. What is gained from having a holographic image of a dead person in the room, beyond a false sense that the person is still alive? The computer program can adapt as it learns new information ("I'll remember that," is its way of acknowledging that it has changed in some way), but if the information is coming from a person who already knows and remembers it, then the hologram is merely a vessel for repeating stories. It's like a parrot, a comparison that comes up directly in Almereyda's screenplay.

The fascinating thing about the movie is not this element, which plays out as one might expect from a movie adapted from a stage play—with lengthy scenes of dialogue in an isolated space. The surviving relatives talk to each other and the hologram, which takes three different forms throughout the movie, as the natural inevitability of death strikes the family through the passing years.

At first, the hologram takes the form of Walter (Jon Hamm), the late husband of Marjorie (Lois Smith, who played the role on stage). Marjorie, who's 85 at the start of the movie, suffers from a form of dementia, and her son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins) believes that the presence of Walter—even in artificial and younger form—will help with her memory. Jon's wife, Marjorie's daughter, Tess (Geena Davis) worries that they are simply treating her mother like a child.

Most of the conversations here concern stories from the past, queries about the nature and efficacy of the artificial intelligence, and asides—out of earshot of the computer—about the reality of the stories that Marjorie tells, as well as the ones that she doesn't tell (A major revelation comes upon learning that Tess is not an only child but that no one in the family talks about the sibling). The dialogue, from Harrison's play, is intricate in the ways these characters reveal, confuse, and conceal the truth from each other and from the computer program, which can speak in 32 languages but can only know the intimate details of the person whom it's imitating from the spoken remembrances of the people who knew that person.

The character of the computer turns out to be the most fascinating element here. While it exists to serve its singular purpose—of imitating dead people to the best of its ability—the program also appears to possess a mind of its own. It turns on randomly at one point in order to overhear a conversation in which it has not been invited to participate. As it learns, it says that it has an ulterior motive—to become more human, which, in its mind, means to be unpredictable.

One starts to wonder what the program does when it isn't projecting a hologram. Does it have its own life, whatever the life of an artificial intelligence may be? Is there a sentient intelligence beneath the projection of another person, or is the program simply an adept mimic?

We wonder these things, perhaps, because the human characters, although performed well by the cast, serve a thematic purpose, instead of existing as fully defined characters. The point isn't who they are or what they are like. Instead, it's the stories they tell or don't tell. More importantly, it's also how the narrative of the family—kept by the computer and its various, holographic incarnations—changes in ways that seem minor at first. It's not until the final scene—which both answers the question of a life for the computer and suggests a rather tragic existence for it apart from humans—that we realize how far the characters' memories have strayed from the truth—like a game of telephone, played over decades and across generations.

Almereyda may not entirely convince us about the existence of these characters beyond the central theme or dig into the various philosophical arguments that the material presents (i.e., the usefulness of the program as a tool for grief, the actual nature of the computer, and the ways in which memory can degrade or be altered). Those elements are simplified too much, as Almereyda favors a general air of loss and regret. In that regard, the movie almost works, but considering everything surrounding that melancholy tone, Marjorie Prime feels like a missed opportunity.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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