Marjorie Prime

Michael Almereyda’s film Marjorie Prime takes us 20 minutes (years?) into the future when software and interfaces will be so seamless that we won’t be able to discern, or won’t care, when we’re interacting with a digital system or a biological one.

Technical interaction is often portrayed as being inhuman or artificial, but by definition it can’t be, given that we humans are the ones who create those experiences. The dissonance arises from a lack of sophistication. When it comes to anthropomorphic representations up until now our approximations of humanity have been clumsy, but we’re getting better at that. The uncanny valley is shrinking and at some point will be negligible. Spike Jonze handled this brilliantly in Her. Almereyda is offering a different meditation on what our symbiosis with digital personalities might become in the context of a failing human memory. The fidelity of memory is center stage. As the Death Cab for Cutie song points out  “…our memories depend on a faulty camera in our minds.”  

“…our memories depend on a faulty camera in our minds.”

Walter Prime (Jon Hamm) is a holographic digital personality meant to comfort and engage elderly Marjorie (Lois Smith) in her waning days. At Marjorie’s request he looks and sounds like her deceased husband Walter when he was younger. Walter Prime is gentle with her, learning her and responding to her confused mind as she deals with dementia and memory loss.

The idea has surfaced before. Frederick Pohl explored it in his 1977 novel Gateway where the main character has a VR software based therapist. Alex Garland’s 2015 film Ex Machina also went down the rabbit hole of AI and machine intelligence/emotion. I started to say simulated emotion but when you consider that biological emotion is the dance in our brains of learned expectation responding to existential changes catalyzed by a cocktail of hormones, algorithmic emotion can’t be argued to be less “real.” The differentiator there is, again, the level of sophistication. Don’t even get me started on the mysteries of the “id” and “soul.” I’ll leave metaphysics to those who specialize. Let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that observable, repeatable, and predictable phenomena is all of what’s true. Call me crazy, I know.

This film sets the stage for considering mortality and memory.  Lois Smith’s quietly desperate Marjorie is poignant and real. Geena Davis as her daughter Tess turns in a magnificent performance. She’s been missed. Tim Robbins has lost none of his acting chops. There’s something edgy about his disarmingly friendly delivery that belies violence just below the surface. Jon Hamm’s Walter Prime is pitched perfectly low key and dispassionate. One of the most interesting developments in the story comes when Marjorie recruits Walter Prime to help her alter a troubling memory, asking him to tell it back to her better than it actually happened, creating a new memory when her mind slips on the old one. He complies, helping her hack her own experience to make her feel better.  Eternal Sunshine. Would you change your memories if you could? Would that be ethical and intellectually honest?  Does that matter when you’re dying?

Honorable mention for set and cinematography. The set used as the family home is beautiful.

“… a thoughtfully astute study of family, companionship, death, memory, and meaning.”

Technical gripes from the nerd perspective: by the time we are able to project a full scale free-standing hologram from systems at home we will also have refined the software to be fluidly conversational and adaptable when interacting. Walter Prime reminded me of Data from Star Trek : The Next Generation in that he is stiff and a bit thick. He repeats “I’ll remember that now” every time something new is brought up. That’s an outdated model at this point: an artificial entity meant to comfort the dying won’t feel like a human shaped SIRI. That’s a minor complaint but the film would have benefited from more sophisticated tech. This also might have been intentional, to assuage techno-dread and reassure viewers that you’ll always be able to tell when you’re talking to a machine, but you won’t. Software will easily pass the Turing test in the next decade or so. IBM’s Watson beat the best person ever to play Jeopardy using natural language interaction. The singularity is near.

Marjorie Prime is hard to categorize. The IMDB entry indicates it’s a “comedy, drama, mystery.”  The scope of the film goes beyond all of those. It also has elements of Science Fiction and family drama, but those labels too fall short. Almereyda makes you meet him in a different space that defies a simple tagline. This artfully crafted human story of emotional interaction with technology is a thoughtfully astute study of family,companionship,death, memory, and meaning.

Marjorie Prime (2017) Directed By: Michael Almereyda. Written by: Michael Almereyda, Jordan Harrison. Starring: Lois Smith, Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, Tim Robbins.

7 out of 10

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