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“I've Seen Things You People Wouldn't Believe"

Marjorie Prime (December 2017)

Movie Review by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Eighty-six year-old Marjorie, a former violinist of some renown, struggles with declining mental and physical faculties but finds companionship in Walter Prime, a holographic AI emulating her dead husband Walter. Walter Prime’s memories of Marjorie and their life together are only as good as the input he receives, and since Marjorie herself is becoming an increasingly unreliable narrator of her own life, John, the husband of Marjorie’s daughter, Tess--and to a lesser extent Tess herself--help Walter Prime access additional knowledge. But how far can human memories go?

You’re a Good Walter, Either Way

This movie is based on a stage play by Jordan Harrison, and Michael Almereyda does little to disguise this, retaining a basic narrative structure that consists of long, thoughtful conversations in indoor spaces, with little action, scant exterior shots, and some fades to black to indicate breaks in time. This may sound slow-paced and claustrophobic, but it suits the material perfectly, as it did, for example, in Tommy Lee Jones’ film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited. Like that other play-turned-into-a-movie, the spectacle here is the nuanced characters and the depth of ideas and emotions they explore, examined through a near-future extrapolative lens. Lois Smith does an excellent job as Marjorie, and kudos also to the two Academy award-winning actors who respectively play her daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and Tess’ husband John (Tim Robbins). Also very fine, and critical for all this to work, is Jon Hamm’s turn as Walter Prime. With measured tones, a subtle frown that never goes away, a slightly stiff way of holding himself and the warm delivery of not-quite-human lines, Hamm manages just the right amount of believability in his evocation of a learning intelligence at work, simultaneously sophisticated and naive. When asked in an interview if he did anything differently to play this hologram, Hamm punned: “Well, I tried to be much more transparent.”

Viewers of the series Black Mirror may recall that Hamm played a somewhat similar character in the episode “White Christmas,” in which he befriended someone inside a simulated environment. Though he was human there, he also operated within specific success-defining parameters. Thematically this movie perhaps overlaps more closely with a different Black Mirror episode, namely “Be Right Back,” wherein a new type of AI—not holographic, but made tangible through a synthetic body—is created to help people overcome the loss of a loved one. Marjorie Prime smartly investigates how keeping the memory of someone alive, and helping someone with ailing recollection stay in touch with his or her own memories, also creates the danger of never having to let go and move on. If memory, as the film argues, fades a little each time it’s accessed, then how would we react to a Prime, whose memory is flawless and eternal? “I have all the time in the world,” Walter Prime says, and he means it.

The film’s subject matter invites comparison to a few other movies, such as Still Alice, about a woman’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, Robot and Frank, in which the son of an elderly man afflicted with incipient dementia buys him a therapeutic robot, and Her, which explores the tangle of emotions that might arise between humans and AIs. Marjorie Prime is perhaps more textured and less showy than Still Alice, and sets itself apart by its more ambitious handling of the sweep of time and with its intriguing idea of a Prime, a memory aid and grief counselor and best friend all rolled into one. While Robot and Frank is similarly premised, Marjorie Prime is less concerned with plot: its aesthetic is more of an invitation to interiority, to the contemplation of what effects our memories have not only on our perceptions of the world, but in shaping the decisions that affect those around us. In this sense it’s perhaps a little closer to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The bond between Marjorie and Walter Prime is perhaps not as poignant as Her’s central love story, but that’s part of the point, that it can’t be.

I also want to single out Mica Levi’s sparse yet powerful score. I first noticed Levi’s work in Under the Skin, a standout avant-garde composition, and I also thought her music added layers of complexity to the non-linear pathos of Jackie. Similarly, her work here is understated and nuanced, immersive and extremely precise, helping to map out the characters’ depths of feeling without resorting to conventional dramatic motifs.

I’ll Remember that Now – Spoilers Ahead

I unreservedly recommend this movie to viewers who enjoy character-driven science fiction lacking action, and who appreciate the challenge of stories that reveal their ideas only gradually and with minimal assistance.

That said, and as skillfully handled as I believe the overall character development is, I did think the small subplot involving Julie was a misstep. I also wondered: is this a near-future in which the Tess and John’s obvious luxury is commonplace, a kind of technological utopia? If so, how did we get from here to there, and more importantly, why must the story rely on the old trope of a Spanish-speaking caregiver/assistant, with its implied classism/racism? And if not, why couldn’t the script have provided an explanation for Tess and John’s wealth? A few lines would have been enough. This distracted me only minimally from the overall experience, which I found rich and affecting.

The film’s title, once we understand what a Prime is, gives away the fact that Marjorie herself is going to die and that someone is going to interact with a Prime modeled on her. This may sound like a bit of a gloomy spoiler, but in retrospect I believe it enhances the movie, instilling in the viewer an ironically hopeful expectation that while Marjorie the person may inevitably pass, the essence of her, via her memories, will be preserved. Naturally, this raises profound questions about identity and the role of memory in identity, both for the rememberer and the remembered. When Tess interacts with Marjorie Prime, we get insights into her character that weren’t possible before. Only by communicating with something non-human does Tess’ full humanity come to the fore. Later still, when John interacts with the final Prime, we learn about John through John’s perceptions of Tess: he attributes to her a readiness for confrontation, a love for travel and nature, and a kind of resignation to tragedy that recall her namesake in Thomas Hardy’s famous novel. The movie’s final memorable scene, in which the coldness of the snow outside beautifully reminds us that we’re witness to the congregation of non-human intelligences, makes clear what we’ve suspected all along: memory itself is one of this story’s central characters, and the specific vessels in which it manifests are less important than the essence of its being, which technology has here transformed from the mysteriously evanescent to the uncannily permanent.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro's reviews and essays have appeared in markets like the Los Angeles Review of Books, Strange Horizons, Asimov's, Clarkesworld, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.

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