Death and virtual life in Marjorie Prime

A- Futuristic drama
Written by Michael Almereyda; from the play by Jordan Harrison
Directed by Michael Almereyda

One of the hardest parts about losing a loved one is the knowledge that you will never talk to them again and hear a response. This moody, near-future drama posits a way that you just might be able to do that…sort of.

Marjorie Prime meditates on mortality, and on the painful knowledge that everyone we love will die – and many of them will die before us. It also meditates on memory, both the human and digital kind. The film forces us to wonder whether we really remember a lost loved one, or just the memory of what we remember.

Marjorie (Lois Smith) is old, senile, suffers from arthritis, and lives by herself. She’s not long for the world. But she has a companion of sorts – a computer-generated projection of her late husband, Walter. He’s not the old, sick Walter of their last years together, but the handsome Walter with whom she first fell in love (Jon Hamm). He talks to her sympathetically. He tells her stories about their life together. He encourages her to eat.

There are limits to this relationship. This virtual Walter knows only what “he” has been told. And physical intimacy is out of the question; he’s just a 3D projection (called, in the world of the movie, a prime). She can walk right through him.

Their scenes together, concentrated in the first half of the film, are miraculous. Hamm proves that he’s more than a pretty face. His character doesn’t seem quite human, but close enough to fool those who want to believe. He learns from experience and improves his performance. He can pass a Turing test, and yet we still doubt if he’s truly sentient.

Smith’s performance is every bit as good as Hamm’s, if not as showy. Marjorie experienced great joy and pain in her life. She lost a child. A once-great violinist, she can no longer play. She forgets a great deal. She knows she’s not talking to a real person, but she finds “Walter’s” presence comforting.

Marjorie Prime isn’t a two-person movie. Geena Davis and Tim Robbins play Marjorie’s daughter and son-in-law (two more excellent performances). They live nearby and check in frequently. They have their own problems. The daughter, Tess, hates this replica of her father; she despises technology on principle. Her husband, Jon, is an alcoholic who can’t stand conflict. The two have a grown daughter who refuses to talk to her mother. (That will change.)

Jon takes on most of the responsibility for training the prime. He sits down with the projection and explains everything he knows about the real Walter (whom we see once in a flashback). His wife, of course, knows her father better, but she won’t talk to an electronic ghost. (That will change.)

It’s difficult to say how far in the future the story is set. Aside from the primes and transparent smartphones, everything looks pretty 2017. After saying something embarrassing, Marjorie excuses herself with “Remember, I was born in the 20th century.” But if Tess was born in the 21st, the story must be set no earlier than 2050.

The second half isn’t quite as good as the first, and jumps around in ways that are difficult to follow. Sometimes you don’t know if the person on the screen is live or a prime. The film gets pretty weird near the end.

Back in 2012, I reviewed Robot & Frank, another near-future film about an anthropomorphized device taking care of the elderly. That one did a much better job of creating a plausible near future. But in every other way, Marjorie Prime is by far the better film.