In the near future, technology exists to create semi-sentient ghosts (‘primes’) – hologram images of departed loved ones, which are given the semblance of life by an artificial intelligence which creates a simulacrum of the dead personality from external sources (obituaries, family photos, recorded memoirs) but most importantly from talking with people who knew the subject and add their own memories and impressions to the mix. In theory, the primes should get closer and closer to being interactive replicas of the original … but the people feeding its self-improving algorithms might not have accurate memories or might want to avoid touchy or tricky subjects so that a smiling simulation of a dead husband might not know that he was always haunted by a son who committed suicide (and killed the family dog to keep him company in death). Early on, Walter Prime (John Hamm), so handsome and considerate he must be a perfect memory, recalls proposing to his wife Marjorie after a cinema visit in which they saw My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) – which he is very funny and incisive about – and she muses that she might prefer it to have been Casablanca – incidentally, another film in which the girl doesn’t get the guy she loves – which, when the story is revisited as primes talk among themselves, is the case. However, in the interim we have a flashback that proves even the original memory wasn’t accurate – the couple stayed home and had sex, with the question popped while My Best Friend’s Wedding plays ignored on a TV set in the background.
Based on a play by Jordan Harrison, Marjorie Prime is an essay in a particularly high-toned species of science fiction – it’s neither utopian or dystopian, but uses invented technology to get at eternal, thorny material about memory, loss, grief, damage and joy. It’s a quiet, thoughtful, emotionally nuanced piece – tactfully adapted by writer-director Michael Almereyda – with soft-spoken performances that repay close attention – with Lois Smith, John Hamm and Geena Davis playing living people and their prime incarnations (each with a different balance) and Tim Robbins as the only unprimed principle, who nevertheless is last seen greatly aged and altered. Smith, a stage actress who is significantly in East of Eden and Five Easy Pieces – but upstaged by showy leading men and blowsier women in both – has appeared for Almereyda in a few roles (Twister, The Eternal) and gets, at 85 or so, perhaps the film role of her career (she’s also appeared in the play) as the self-composed but slightly wayward grandmother Marjorie, who already senses approaching dementia (when she has ‘an accident’, her son-in-law kindly tells her to forget it and she quips ‘I probably will’). Tess (Davis), Marjorie’s daughter, is creeped out by the prime of her young father, and fears that Marjorie’s embrace of this technology isn’t healthy – though, after an ellipsis during which Marjorie presumably dies, she herself installs a Marjorie Prime, and Smith gives the AI ghost an almost childish smile, eager to learn to be a good replacement.
There’s quite a lot of plot, expressed in slowly-uncovered backstory and things that happen between scenes, but this is a conversational film, where well-educated, well-mannered, moneyed white folks talk about art exhibits, the philosopher William James, Mozart and Poulenc (Marjorie was a musician) and classic cinema (plus My Best Friend’s Wedding, which apparently made Marjorie wish she had a gay best friend). Set almost entirely in a minimalist oceanview house on Long Island, it deliberately tries for a narrow register of tones even as – like A Ghost Story – it encompasses a cosmos of feelings and perhaps time, with especially effective use of the weather (pelting rain, a snowfall) to heighten feelings. It’s proper science fiction, by the way – the technology is almost credible, with use of a kind of predictive text for emotional cues. It’s a much more sophisticated analysis of the use of holo-companions than that sub-plot in Blade Runner 2049, for instance. Crucially, people have a variety of attitudes to the primes while the piece doesn’t deliver any great editorial about how their use would lead to an apocalypse or cripple society.