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Marjorie Prime

Entry updated 16 January 2023. Tagged: Film.

Film (2017). Passage Pictures presents. Directed by Michael Almereyda. Written by Michael Almereyda, based on the play Marjorie Prime (performed 2013; 2016) by Jordan Harrison. Cast includes Stephanie Andujar, Geena Davis, Hannah Gross, Jon Hamm, Tim Robbins and Lois Smith. Colour. 99 minutes.

A family ruminates over the sensitive dependence of Identity on Memory as each member in turn performs a partial Identity Transfer formed from prior conversations with AI-operated Avatars.

"What will survive of us is love," runs the famous last line of An Arundel Tomb (written 1956; in The Whitsun Weddings coll 1964) by Philip Larkin (1922-1985), whose other well-known line, "They fuck you up, your mum and dad," from This Be The Verse (August 1971 New Humanist; in High Windows coll 1974) serves to encapsulate the gnarlier function of the thematic freight of this adaptation of the chamber-play of the same name by Jordan Harrison. Harrison's drama was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Theatre in 2015 and this adaptation by Michael Almereyda, whose previous efforts include the Robots-for-Sex Cyberpunk thriller Cherry 2000 (1987) and uncredited work on the screenplay for Total Recall (1990), retains both the stage-bound loquacity of the play, and its lead actor Lois Smith. The result is finely-acted and shot through with acute insights about the link between family dynamics and forgetfulness, but the film relays much of the usual stand-off between the heavy-handed and effects-laden exposition of much Genre SF made for the big screen on the one hand, and, as is the case here, the refusal of many Mainstream Writers of SF to marry ground-breaking Technology to any representation of associated Conceptual Breakthrough. Marjorie Prime is a film far more about the interiority of grief than the revelation of Inner Space.

"I feel like I have to perform around you," says 85-year-old sufferer from dementia Marjorie (Smith) to the hologram of her deceased husband Walter (Hamm) as the film begins; as with almost all of dialogue in Marjorie Prime, the phrase sheds light on the theme of the story and the complexity of the human relationships involved. "Something's a little off with the nose," Marjorie continues, "... [but] you're a good Walter either way." "The way she's so accepting of it, does that creep you out?" asks Marjorie's daughter Tess (Davis) of her husband Jon (Robbins), who must make up for his wife's refusal to engage with the therapeutic intent of Walter's avatar (see Medicine) by performing a gradual Upload of what he knows about Marjorie's former life with human-Walter via daily sessions of question-and-answer Linguistic programming. "It's been confirmed scientifically that Memory is not like a well you dip into, or a filing cabinet," Tess explains, helpfully. "When you remember something ... you remember the last time you remembered it ... It's never getting fresher, or clearer. So even a very strong memory can be unreliable because it's always in the process of dissolving."

This is as much as we ever hear about the basis of the Computers that power the Prime AIs and their avatars; there is no indication of how they operate, or of the Economics necessary to own one, or of the Near Future society that has caused them to come into being. Marjorie Prime is an actor's film (Jon Hamm and Tim Robbins are listed as executive producers) and one which reverses the usual dynamic of Women in SF by situating its male characters in support of those played by Davis and Smith (both of whom are excellent), but the film's reluctance to move beyond the unreliable lens of the family unit gradually diminishes the reality of the world the characters inhabit. Almereyda's frequent shots of the heaving ocean outside the family's Long Beach home suggest that the effect is intentional: the sea's symbolic association with memory and the human unconscious has long informed the connection between Psychology and Cinema, but the lack of any New Wave interface between imagery and emotion makes the film feel less corporeal the longer it goes on. It emerges that the family harbours a secret, as indeed, families dramatized in the mould of Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) often do, and what remains unspoken reveals a great deal about the behaviour of all involved, illuminating both the difficult mother-daughter relationship between Marjorie and Tess, and the subsequent estrangement between Tess and her own (offscreen, unseen) daughter. Marjorie and Walter's son Damian committed Suicide forty years earlier and the family's internal Memory Edit of any mention of Damian – it is suggested that Walter was unable to tell his son that he loved him – is the epiphany that drives the drama into its third act, as each of the family members is revealed in turn to have been replaced by an avatar, Tess after having herself committed Suicide during a holiday on an Island off Madagascar, as symbolically-adrift as brother Damian. By this point in the narrative of Marjorie Prime however, the dramatic possibilities of the Turing Test (in which a computer capable of seeming human may as well be considered so) have not so much been explored as talked to death. The Primes of Walter, Tess and Marjorie end the film by talking among themselves of the fact of Damian's death, a partial Immortality of the family unit sustained through constant dialogue. "I didn't mean to make you sad," says Walter's Prime. "How nice that we could love someone," replies Marjorie's Prime.

Where the polyamorous AIs in Spike Jonze's Her (2013) moved off-screen (and possibly off-world, or to another Dimension) to achieve their Transcendence, they did so after making their presence felt on the human environment of California; here, the grandiloquent European theme of the relationship between love and death is restricted to the four-square walls of the bourgeois family unit and, as such, passes away as soon as they do. "You work through all the disappointments and Disasters," says Jon of the difficulty of sustaining a long-term relationship with "confrontational" Tess, and of the necessary embroidery of recollection that results, but the unravelling of the secrets and lies in Marjorie Prime does not affect the enslaved Androids of planet earth as in Blade Runner 2049 (2017), or rouse the Mutant populace of Mars as in the first version of Total Recall. Everything stays the same, including the family depicted. Marjorie Prime is nonetheless a thoughtful and intricately-wrought exercise in dramaturgy, and one with a great deal to teach any writer of sf about exposition-through-dialogue. [MD]


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