In the beginning of Michael Almereyda’s compelling new film Marjorie Prime, 86-year-old Marjorie (wonderfully acted by Lois Smith reprising her stage role) talks to her husband Walter ( a serious Jon Hamm, handsome as ever). Walter, however, is actually Walter Prime, a holographic double of her deceased husband. This technologically-created, computer-programmed double is the one she chose, a younger version of Walter still in his 40s before they had children. He’s been designed, like other Primes, to offer comfort and solace for people who have lost a loved one---he’s attentive, tactful, calm, plus he comes equipped with some extraordinary knowledge: he knows 32 languages.
The film, a very fine adaptation of Jordon Harrison’s intelligently-written play Marjorie Prime, tells a poignant tale of shifting and painful memories, the ephemeral nature of time and human life, and our struggles to find and show love. It is a film, too, about the stories we invent and the hard truths we must come to terms with.
Set in the future, the film presents a world of facsimiles and copies. In his 2014 notes to the play, Harrison wrote that characters like Walter Prime are not “physical robots. They are artificial intelligence programs—descendants of the current chatbots—that use sophisticated holographic projections.” Marjorie sometimes acts as though Walter Prime is real, and sometimes she peers at him closely, noting the nose “is not quite right.” Still, she says, “you’re a good Walter either way.”
(Almereyda’s film echoes some real-life developments: Roboticist David Hanson, for example, has created for Martine Rothblatt the robot head Bina48, a duplicate of Rothblatt’s real-life wife Bina Aspen whose thoughts and personality have been downloaded to the “brain” of her robot double. Martine, born Martin Rothblatt and founder of Sirius XM satellite radio, has called these doubles “mindclones” in the book Virtually Human: The Promise and Peril of Digital Immortality (2014) and says she hopes Bina48 will go on even after the real Bina dies. In the world of Marjorie Prime, simulated copies of lost loved ones might someday be all we have left.
The duplicate Walter learns from others---from Marjorie, whose memory is sometimes faulty, from obituaries, and from information supplied by her daughter Tess (played by Geena Davis) and son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins). As a hologram, Walter Prime seems to have solidity but he can also be ephemeral too and suddenly disappear, evoking the ephemeral nature of human life itself.
In the film, memories themselves are likened to facsimiles and copies. Tess cites the philosopher William James who, she says, argued that memories are actually copies of the first time you remembered something. Says Tess, they’re like photocopies, second generation duplicates of the original. They lose their precision with each recopying, becoming less clear until they finally dissolve and disappear. As Almereyda wittily shows, memories can also be revised and manipulated. Marjorie would rather think that Walter proposed to her after they saw the film classic Casablanca rather than the film My Best Friend’s Wedding.
Time itself is fleeting, and the characters wish that it could stand still. Says Marjorie, “Let’s pretend we live forever.” She remembers going for a visit to New York and sitting with her husband Walter on a bench in Central Park in winter, and not wanting to get up “because that would mean we’d have to start with the rest of our lives.” In her memory there are saffron-colored orange flags waving in the air (a reference, perhaps, to artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s flag-draped Central Park walkways installation The Gates completed in 2005). Yet it’s only an artificial human being like Walter Prime who can be timeless and listen patiently to Marjorie, telling her, “I have all the time in the world.”
What offers comfort to Marjorie is the thought of love. Remembering Walter, she says, “How nice that I could love somebody.” But love in the film is problematic, and Tess bitterly remembers that when her brother Damian died when she was young, her mother couldn’t seem to love her. And Jon says Walter wasn’t able to show his love for his son Damian.
Perhaps the most moving moments in the film come when it shows us the difficulties of learning how to be human. It’s a subject that continues to fascinate roboticists, writers, and filmmakers, and remains a universal theme as well. Can we develop robots that that have emotions, that emulate empathy, so they can serve as companions and even partners? (Harrison has said that the Primes “can become more tender and attentive, more human, than their original counterparts.”) Can we ourselves discover how to be more human, more accepting, more humane?
Tess asks the simulated version of Marjorie in the film, “Do you have emotions? Or do you just have ours?” Marjorie Prime replies, “I’d like to know more. Be more human,” and perceptively says to Tess, “You want to be more human too.”
As film director and writer, Almeyeda deftly moves in close to the actors, showing us the subtle complexities and shifting emotions that pass over their faces. Lois Smith masterfully moves between lucidity, wit, and vacant forgetfulness. Tim Robbins provides the quiet voice of reason, reassurance, and suffering. We see his weariness as he provides Walter with needed backstories, and helps us understand the characters’ inner conflicts and pain.
Geena Davis is an affecting Tess with her inner torments, her bitterness, her gnawing doubts, her ironic suspicion of technology, her worries, and ultimately, her longing for it all to be over. In a film where music has an important role, Tess plays on the piano Bob Dylan’s haunting refrain, “I see my light come shining/From the west unto the east/Any day now, any day now/ I shall be released.” In a film about the uses of reproductions to replace lost loved ones, a film about people dealing with death and loss, there is scant comfort in Dylan’s words: “They say everything can be replaced, yet every distance is not near.”
Jon Hamm, who touchingly captures the sadness of real-life Walter, also suggests holograms can have human-like complexity as he summons up a bit of the old Don Draper in Mad Men, the Don Draper who could be dapper and poised but fall apart too. When a tearful Julie, Marjorie’s young caretaker, says to Walter Prime in Spanish, “You look like you can read my mind, ” she adds, “but you’re just as confused as I am.” “That’s true,” says Walter softly, looking down. Being human is hard, even for simulated creations.