‘Marjorie Prime’ and the Reconstruction of Memory

“Memory is not like a well…when you remember the memory, not the source…it never gets clearer…it’s always in the process of dissolving.”

– Tess (Geena Davis), Marjorie Prime

In Marjorie Prime (2017), memory lies at the heart of this genre-transcending science-fiction drama. Based on Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer-nominated play, the film adaptation made its world debut at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is Michael Almereyda’s seventh film screening at the festival, starring Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”), Lois Smith, Geena Davis (“Thelma and Louise”) and Tim Robbins (“The Shawshank Redemption”).

Marjorie (Lois Smith) is a widow in her eighties suffering from dementia. But, Marjorie isn’t living the last year of her life alone. Her artificial intelligent companion, Walter Prime (Jon Hamm), keeps her company as she spends her days struggling to remember her past or what she just had for breakfast. Prime technology allows those deceased to live on through the surviving’s memories of them. Each day Walter and Marjorie spend the day storytelling–Walter filling in the blanks with the help of son-in-law John (Tim Robbins).

marjorie_prime

“The future will be here soon enough, you might as well be friendly with it.”

– Marjorie (Lois Smith), Marjorie Prime 

As the audience learns more about Marjorie’s relationship with Walter and Tess, it becomes apparent that the stories are truly becoming fairy tales—reconstructed from actual memories of their past. The memories have been tweaked to seem right out of a movie, omitting the upsetting parts. To Marjorie, these reconstructed memories of Walter and Marjorie are real, and leave a lasting smile on her face during her final days. The two become very close, leaving Tess jealous and skeptical of her young hologram father. Tess raises the question of what it means to be human and how a piece of artificial intelligence can form a connection with her failing mother.

“It’s about memory. It’s about loss and it’s about relationships and what it is, in us, to be human and it looks at it from a very interesting perspective.”

– Jon Hamm, interview with The Hollywood Reporter

It focuses on how humans construct and reconstruct lived memories. The Prime technology is one method for humans to be able to save memories, lock them inside a talking case and never dissolve. However, instead of saving ‘accurate’ memories, Walter Prime changes a casual in-bed marriage proposal into a screening of Casablanca and a romantic moment in the city. He later reconstructs an event seen on television into a lovely moment sitting on a park bench, staring into the orange flags on a cold, winter day.

Marjorie Prime is also a story of loss because the Primes act as a mechanism for the human grieving process. But, as someone who has recently grieved over the loss of a grandmother with Alzheimer’s Disease, are the Primes a resource for grieving people or is it counterintuitive? As John and Marjorie help recreate the forty-year-old Walter, they must also go through the pain of remembering Walter Prime is not the real Walter–and he never will be.

“Prime could be a really useful tool for someone that is losing their memory, but at the same time it could be a very dangerous thing to moving on.”

– Tim Robbins, interview with The Hollywood Reporter

Are they able to successfully grieve over the deceased if there is an moving, speaking image of them constantly around? That is one question audiences are expected to grapple with.

Despite the intriguing messages of memory in the film, Marjorie Prime came up short for me. Smith’s veteran performance of Marjorie is well-crafted, as she has been Marjorie both on screen and on stage. Co-star Hamm successfully brought to life a hologram with charismatic neutrality, both understanding his limitations as artificial intelligence and expressing the desire to be more human. The dialogue is intelligent and quietly thought provoking throughout the film, but the performances overall leave audiences with a taste for more. The cloudy sky and strong ocean current mirror the changing state of Marjorie’s mind—emphasizing the days when she either remembers details or desperately yearn for something to come to mind. In the film’s marketing, they ask audiences:

“What would we remember, and what would we forget, if given the chance?”

Marjorie Prime leaves audiences wondering about their own memories, but—similar to Walter Prime—leaves them craving a stronger emotional response.

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