Marjorie Prime: a film by Michael Almereyda

In the short story “The Last Incantation” by the neglected pulp master Clark Ashton Smith, a wizard summons the image of a long-dead love, intent on reliving his past ardor now that he’s also facing death. But the revenant is wrong somehow, it lacks an essential quality, and fails to rekindle his past feelings. Later, the man’s demon familiar tells him that the image he conjured was perfect. What was missing was in him. No “spell could recall for you your own lost youth, or the fervent and guileless heart that once loved…”

The characters of Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime face a similar lesson. In the near future, technology allows the creation of primes, fully interactive holograms designed to resemble once-living people. The movie opens with the elderly Marjorie (Lois Smith) talking to Walter (Jon Hamm), a prime representative of her husband in his youth. Occasionally, Marjorie has to correct the prime about Walter’s personality, but otherwise they engage in gentle reminiscence. Movies they’ve seen together, when he proposed, their pets, their daughter.

Marjorie Prime is based around a string of such conversations. More than just idle chatter, the talks slowly reveal the turns and tensions of the plot. We learn what the characters remember, how they remember, what they choose to remember. Only an occasional lapse into the stagey mars the dialogue. (Not unexpected, Marjorie Prime began life as a 2015 off-Broadway play by Jordan Harrison). They take on even greater force as we come to understand the way each set piece serves as a meditation on how we are both complicit and accidental in our own self-creation.

“No man is what he was or will be who he is,” as Walter prime says at one point.

Geena Davis and Tim Robbins round appear as Marjorie’s daughter Tessa and son-in-law Jon. To them go the roles of voicing the story’s metaphysical aspects. Tessa thinks it’s creepy the way her elderly mother jabbers away with a young version of her father. She calls the prime a mere “backboard” and compares it to a parrot. The conundrum, besides the fact that you can walk through him, is that Walter really does seem human. Isn’t that all anyone can say about another?

Here we enter the same territory as Ex Machina, Blade Runner, and Her. What does it mean to be human? Are we all simply Turing machines? Or do we possess an ineffable quality – aka a soul — that makes us more than a data bank of recorded events? I suggest catching this one before dinner and before you’ve had a glass of wine or two.

Let’s talk about the acting. Lois Smith, as the grandmother slowly lapsing into dementia, individualizes a role that could’ve easily verged on the trite and common. Hamm plays the cool exterior of an artificial human in the style recently perfected by Michael Fassbender (Derived from the repressed expression of Peter O’Toole’s Laurence of Arabia). But Hamm is such a good actor that every profiled jaw he gives to the camera conveys layers of meaning and emotion. Davis’s Tessa perfectly embodies the contradiction of a person clamping a hand over an open wound and pretending everything is okay. As the wonderfully fleshy inebriate Jon, Tim Robbins mixes his usual mischievousness with the temper of a chastened, though perhaps not wiser man.

Marjorie Prime is set mainly in a beach house on Long Island. Crashing waves provide a gentle background susurrus. I had to wonder if Almereyda meant to conjure Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves, another work dealing with memory and the passage of time. The day after seeing Marjorie Prime, I flipped through the copy of The Waves that I’d read in college. An underlined sentence caught my eye.

“I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me.”

Marjorie Prime. Written for the screen and directed by Michael Almereyda. 98 minutes. In general release.