What would we remember if given the chance? What would we forget? Are our memories what make us human? But what if our memories are unreliable? Michael Almereyda’s screen adaption of Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer-shortlisted 2014 play Marjorie Prime is a masterful meditation on memory, identity, and forgetting. The title character, Marjorie (played by Lois Smith), is introduced to us talking to a handsome, compassionate, but somewhat stiff middle aged man – Walter (Jon Hamm) – who is her Prime, her simulated companion with the density of a high-grade hologram – an artificial intelligence. He is in the shape of her late husband, or rather as he looked in his 40s; the thing about Marjorie is that she cannot always remember everything, and Walter is there to feed her the memories. His only minus is that all his knowledge of Marjorie’s memories has come from her daughter Tess (Geena Davis), her husband Jon (Tim Robbins), or Marjorie herself. What they haven’t told him, he doesn’t know. “I’ll remember that now,” the Prime says, dutifully, every time it has been told a new story.
The film unfolds slowly, is tranquilly paced with extensive dialogs that somewhat remind us of the original source of the plot – yet Almereyda takes everything a few steps further (something that stage-to-screen adaptions quite seldom do), powerfully using the tools cinema has that theatre lacks: the ability to amplify the smallest of details. He splendidly focuses on human emotion through close ups which highlight his complex, yet universal theme – a dilemma between honouring the integrity of the past, and moderating the memories to mend relationships that were left uncertain in real life.
Because of the extensive focus on dialog and human emotion it is necessary to pay a tribute to Marjorie Prime’s cast – the success of this film certainly rests on the shoulders of their impeccable performances. Smith’s character, despite her age, still has her girlish charm; Davis and Robbins present a duo that is utterly aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses; Hamm, God knows how, manages to remain empathetic and robotic at the same time. What certainly makes the performances more remarkable is that everyone besides Robbins plays both their character’s real self, and their Prime self, with the shifts being beautifully nuanced, and not overemphasised.
I feel like the movie ends up embodying a sort of circle of life – half way through the focus shifts from Marjorie to the younger generation, and the Primes left behind, one by one, become like ghosts containing the essence of the humanity that the people they are portraying possessed – their memories – but they are not real life people. Somehow the audience is left to ponder over their own relationships with their family, and whether there are things that need to be said before it’s too late. The film even pushes us to question it’s own world where it operates – is the use of such artificial intelligence even useful, or is it simply deceitful by giving us a false promise of redemption after the point of “it’s too late”.
Marjorie Prime is definitely your typical sci fi movie – sure, it deals with the universal and sometimes (but of course not in this case) tiresome themes of memory and identity, but it does not attempt to assert an universal meaning, and allows the audience feel whatever they need to feel at the time – all the while remaining realistic in its presentation. We have all lost somebody and memories are all we have left of them – so it is up to every single individual viewer to decide whether they see the film as somewhat nostalgic, melancholic, or even just uncanny. Almereyda’s work has a poetic feel, it flows like water, and haunts you. After all, I still believe that good movies are those that stick with you even long after the screen has blacked out – that’s exactly what happens with Marjorie Prime. And it’s worth every second of it.
Dir: Michael Almereyda
Scr: Michael Almereyda, based on the play by Jordan Harrison
Featuring: Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, Lois Smith, Tim Robbins, Stephanie Andujar, Hannah Gross, Hana May Colley
Prd: Michael Almereyda, Uri Singer
DOP: Sean Williams
Music: Mica Levi
Run Time: 99 min
In cinemas 10th November 2017