This absorbing, finely acted film of a play certainly gives the viewer a lot to think about. While a little too talky – especially in the exposition-heavy beginning – it delves into questions about artificial intelligence, the accuracy of memory and the loss of mental faculties with aging that are dealt with in an entertaining manner. Adapted by director Michael Almereyda, from a play by Jordan Harrison, its tone is disarmingly bright, in spite of the grim subject matter. And its filmed treatment – with one major exception – is of a piece with that intent.
The year is the near future, around 2050. We see an elderly woman, Marjorie, played by Lois Smith (wonderful), living in an oceanfront beach house. At 85, she shows signs of mental deterioration from Alzheimer’s. She starts a conversation with her husband, Walter, who, oddly, is a handsome and vigorous man in his forties. We learn that “Walter” is really a hologram, elegantly played by Jon Hamm, who was created from memories of Marjorie’s dead husband so she could have someone to talk to. It was commissioned by her daughter, Tess, and son-in-law Jon, played by Geena Davis and Tim Robbins. But instead of relief, Tess and Jon are ambivalent and far from hopeful. They come for an extended visit, and the largest part of the film deals with Tess’ unresolved feelings about her mother, and family secrets from the past.
The sci-fi elements are fascinating, but perfunctory. We are asked to accept that an artificial “person” can be created purely from transcribed data, and that, at some point, its integrated circuitry can “self-will” into independent thought and action. That Almereyda carries the viewer along to that point, making it believable through the skill of the actors, clever dialogue and editing, is the film’s biggest accomplishment. While absorbing in itself, and skillfully revealed, the back-story of the relationship between the characters is less focused, and dramatically unresolved. There are too many personal revelations by the humans, all made in close-up to various holograms, that “explain” the past in cinematically static terms.
Making the problem worse is Tim Robbins’ performance. In isolation, it is powerfully dramatic and subtly modulated; skillful work, in fact. But it seems to belong in a different film entirely. Almereyda maintains a stately pace, good for quiet dramatic revelations. The actors’ faces tend to betray little of their feelings, which adds genuine surprise to the often shocking things they say. Even Geena Davis, saddled with an over-written monologue, maintains a kind of mystery to Tess. The theme of the unreliability of memory, of identity itself, is reinforced by this. But, almost from the beginning, Robbins seems to be a man steeped in his own misery. Jon is never without a drink in his hand, and his facial expression tells us why. Robbins’ incessant gloom, perfect for late O’Neill perhaps, spoils the film’s tone. It’s also why Jon’s choice to have his own hologram, late in the film, is not credible.
But the bracing, brilliant final scene – in which none of the “human” characters appear – almost makes up for this. Technically an epilogue, since the story about the human characters is over, we are suddenly introduced to issues that were barely acknowledged before. Can we artificially create a human “identity” out of data, which is inorganic? If we can, what is it that makes us different from them? The scene is essentially the final stage of a rocket that blasts the story into an entirely new dimension, one that is potentially more profound and rewarding than the film we’ve just seen.
It would surprise me if the filmmakers simply abandoned such fertile material after giving us Marjorie Prime. In fact, I’m willing to bet they’ll have more to say. I, for one, will be paying attention.