Movie Review: ‘MARJORIE PRIME’ – an uncommonly engaging drama set against a sci-fi backdrop

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Jared McMillan // Film Critic

MARJORIE PRIME

Not rated, 98 minutes.
Director: Michael Almereyda
Cast: Jon HammGeena DavisTim RobbinsLois SmithStephanie Andujar and Azumi Tsutsui
Now playing at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas and Plano.

The question of “what happens when we die?” is often looked at from a singular perspective. Whether it be becoming a ghost or reaching Heaven or Hell, the proposed thought is one regarding the self as our own mortality reaches its end. However, it is rare to have a film look at your eternity by way of those that knew you.

It’s not new knowledge that we pass down our ancestry and the memory of others through our generations. We, as a society, regard those that have come before us to relate to those close to us; we use the past to establish our present relationships, which helps others establish us in the future. This is one of the many concepts revolving around MARJORIE PRIME, a film so thoughtfully intelligent in its intention about the memory and remembrance itself that it becomes beautiful and sometimes heartbreaking.

Marjorie (Lois Smith) is dying, and her illness has led to blurred memory, senility, forgetfulness, whatever the case may be. As the film begins, we see her begin a new conversation with Walter (Jon Hamm), who is an AI program meant to react to Marjorie’s conversation as her husband, who has long been deceased. This AI, known as a Prime, is meant to give comfort to those in distress or grief or illness, etc.

As a Prime is installed, it needs to be given input to maintain its credibility as whomever it is meant to be, in this case Walter. How he was as a person, as a husband, as a father, as well as various memories to help build his “memory.” Walter Prime also has conversations with John (Tim Robbins), who is married to Marjorie’s daughter, Tess (Geena Davis); he embraces the idea of the Prime, while she is apprehensive and creeped out by it.

Jon Hamm and Lois Smith star in ‘MARJORIE PRIME.’ Courtesy of FilmRise.

The plot to MARJORIE PRIME is fluid at best, revolving around its dialogue to piece together the background of each character, as well as their emotions. But it is driven by keying in on remembrance and creating an intimacy for the viewer as we pick up on cues, questions, and repetitions. After all, remembering is a communication we have with ourselves, going over moments to help give breadth to current or future situations.

Within the world of the film, exchanging memories is helping keep Marjorie intact, making sure these thoughts are helping her keep the images of herself with her loved ones. Conversely, forgetting how certain memories existed are creating conflicts in her personality, which is giving way to tension with the other characters, specifically Tess, as this Prime program is more accepted by her mother than she ever was.

MARJORIE PRIME is, by all accounts, built within a sci-fi construct. Set in the not-too-distant future, revolving around plausible AI concepts. However, director Michael Almereyda (who co-wrote the film with Jordan Harrison, based on Harrison’s play) means to subvert those genre tropes to make the delivery more universal. Keeping the setting within Marjorie’s house gives an intimate feel as the interaction moves between characters. Furthermore, characters repeat movements and phrases to help increase their depth and meaning.

While the dialogue flows, there are key moments to help give weight to their words. For example, as John and Tess recall a memory of the last time they were at a country club, and it becomes a discussion about William James’ definition of memory. This leads one to believe that Jamesian concepts are at work within the film’s constructs. There are touches of Mica Levi’s ethereal score to pinpoint a certain emotion or transition, building on everything we absorb in these moments.

There are other elements to MARJORIE PRIME that won’t be considered as it would spoil the film. Suffice to say, it turns into something much more about the characters and gives a solid exclamation point to memory and the ones responsible for advancing a family’s history. Any misstep would have created something overly sentimental or use Marjorie as something to manipulate the viewer’s emotions. It’s a damn near perfect film.

Grade: A+

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.