Most movies about artificial intelligence have been glitzy sci-fi pictures, often with menacing undertones. By contrast “Marjorie Prime,” adapted by Michael Almereyda from a 2014 play by Jordan Harrison that was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, situates concerns about the impact of AI within a contemplative, cerebral piece about loss, grief and the fragility of memory. Its concern with existential issues and its hushed, deliberate style may hold you rapt; conversely, it might bore you to distraction.
The chamber piece is set at some date in the near future at a seaside home where elderly Marjorie (Lois Smith) lives with her daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins). In order to help her deal with her worsening dementia, they have provided her with a 3D hologram of her late husband Walter (Jon Hamm), called Walter Prime, whose conversations with her can, it’s hoped, help minimize her loss of memory—though painful recollections are to be suppressed.
Jon is a strong proponent of the created Walter’s value, feeding him information that he can then use in his sessions with Marjorie. Tess, on the other hand, is more ambivalent, not only because her relationship with her mother is somewhat fraught, but because there are parts of the past—like her father’s infidelity and the fate of her brother—that she doesn’t want resuscitated.
Indeed, the film deals explicitly with the very nature of memory, suggesting that it is not something definite and established but rather a continuously revised construct, with memories that are “called up” being not a reconnection with the actual remembered event but instead the last memory of it that has been previously accessed, so that like every duplicate of a duplicate, it erodes over time and can even be altered. A humorous moment about that occurs early on, when Walter relates how he and Marjorie had gone to see “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and she conspiratorially suggests they should revise the story to have gone to “Casablanca” instead. Harrison and Almereyda are getting at a point similar to the one made recently by “The Sense of an Ending,” arguing that we don’t really reconstruct the past as much as construct it anew in the present, a variant of the idea that the past isn’t dead, and isn’t even past.
The film also raises the issue of the nature of the “primes”—not just Walter but others that appear in later stages of the picture. They absorb whatever information on the individual they’re replacing is given them, but always want more, aiming to become as fully human as possible, and as perfect a “copy” as they can. In the last section, after a succession of scenes that show the aging of the human characters like an extended version of “2001,” we see a group of “primes” now remembering—and longing for—the past themselves.
If all that seems too esoteric and precious to endure, rest assured that as intellectualized as it might sound, “Marjorie Prime” conveys a strongly humanist strain, due largely to the excellence of the ensemble cast, who succeed in transforming their characters from symbols in an exercise into fully felt individuals. Smith gives a career-capping performance as the frail but cheeky Marjorie, while Davis—absent from major roles too long—makes Tess a complex figure. Even better is Robbins, whose subtlety here recalls his best past work. Hamm, meanwhile, captures the robotic nature of hologram Walter faultlessly.
Almereyda brings a delicate touch to this material. While he’s not able to “open up” the piece in any appreciable way—a few outdoor scenes and flashbacks apart, as well as occasional shots of the swirling sea—he does manage to avoid a simply stagey feel. In this he’s helped by Sean Williams’ fluid cinematography, Kathryn J. Schubert’s stately editing and Javiera Varas’ elegant production design, as well as Mica Levi’s imaginative music score, in which bursts of string sonority alternate with subdued rumblings and some ambient intrusions.
“Marjorie Prime” is hardly a rousing crowd-pleaser, but it is a quietly affecting rumination on memory and loss that will touch those willing to watch and listen attentively.