The problem facing Marjorie Prime, the film version of Jordan Harrison’s successful play, is that it shares a high-concept premise with an episode of Black Mirror. Both films use a science fiction conceit to explore how we deal with loss, but there are enough key differences—both in terms of tone and scope—to make the film worthwhile anyway. Adapted and directed by Michael Almereyda, who also directed a Hamlet adaptation set in modern times, this film undeniably feels like a play. The dialogue is lyrical, for one thing, and all takes place within one set. While admittedly remote and distant, there is emotional resonance to the film, leading into an earned, peculiar sense of wistful sadness.
Marjorie (Lois Smith) is 85 years old, and she is losing her mind. A retired violinist, she cannot play because of arthritis and forgets major life events, like when her husband proposed to her. Jon Hamm plays her husband, Walter—or a version of him, anyway. This is a future where an unnamed company can help the elderly or the aggrieved with a sophisticated hologram, or a “prime,” of their departed loved ones. The more Marjorie interacts with Walter Prime, the better the program can capture his mannerisms. Marjorie’s daughter Tess (Geena Davis) is skeptical of the prime, while her husband, Jon (Tim Robbins), sees its potential. We see Jon talk with Walter, supplying it with details about their lives. We also learn more about the family—all their success and tragedies—so each new interaction takes on new complex dimensions.
The film’s strength is its casting. Smith, Hamm, Davis, and Robbins all radiate intelligence, and they can hit an emotional note through inflection alone. Hamm has the toughest role, yet he conveys a sense of inhumanity with the Prime’s eagerness, its patient nature, and its utter lack of normal movement. Hamm stays still—his voice reassuring, docile—without ever really moving his hands. The drama has an ephemeral quality to it, although we do not realize it at first. Years pass in a second, serving as a reminder for a Prime’s permanence and Marjorie’s mental state. There are clues in the dialogue, even the staging of scenes, so that we start to understand the sadness that defines this family. No one ever raises their voice; it’s through restraint that we feel their pain.
Although the film is set in the future—Marjorie talks about seeing 1997’s My Best Friend’s Wedding as a young woman—Almereyda offers few hints we are watching science fiction. We see Marjorie walk through a prime, suggesting it isn’t real, and Tess speaks on a mobile phone that looks almost invisible. Walter and Marjorie’s home looks immaculate, in a timeless way. Like Solaris, another film that uses science fiction to explore loss, Marjorie Prime uses science fiction to delve into the interior lives of its characters. At times, the film’s stagey quality is obvious. Characters describe lots of evocative imagery, like dreams, since stage actors do not have the visual freedom of film directors. The effect can be a little tedious, and yet the premise has enough dramatic heft so that the film’s eventual shifts culminate toward genuine power.
In the promotional material and trailers for Marjorie Prime, Smith and Hamm get the lion’s share of the attention. Still, the film’s real stand-out is Robbins, who hasn’t been given a role this juicy in years. At first, Jon seems like kind of a prick. He condescends to Tess, suggesting a relationship defined through adversarial encounters, and yet Robbins eventually arrives at a deeper sense of kindness. During the film’s final stretches, he speaks in reserved tones that he hasn’t used since The Shawshank Redemption. The final scenes are appropriately hollow, working as a metaphor for what eventually happens to all our memories, and yet they would not work without Robbins’ transition from a needling husband into a lonely observer.
Everyone in this film is acutely aware of how they are aging. Marjorie in particular curses her advanced age, aware of her indignities even as she loses her memory. We are all children, parents, husbands, and wives—so Marjorie Prime will undoubtedly mean something specific to everyone who sees it. We may think about our parents, and how they may eventually come to depend on us, instead of the other way around. We may think about our spouses, and how we would deal if we end up outliving them. This is a film that expects you to keep up with it, to think about its themes while you watch. If most films amount to a passive experience, then this one encourages dialogue—if only in your own mind. Marjorie Prime opens Friday at Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market.