Years ago while in the early stages of a relationship, I was so smitten with the woman I was dating that I would constantly tell her “I love you.” Wanting to respond in kind, she’d always reply sweetly, “I love you, too.” But I did it so frequently, eventually she got annoyed with this back-and-forth. “You say ‘I love you’ so much that it creates a lot of pressure on me to say it back to you every time,” she informed me. It was only then that I realized what was really going on: I was telling her I loved her because I just wanted her to confirm that she loved me.
I got better about that — and the woman, who’s now my wife, forgave me — but it’s always stayed with me that so many of our relationships are built around needing the other participant to play the part we’ve assigned them. Whether it’s between a parent and a child or between two lovers, we serve our role, but we also expect the other person to provide something for us — to fill some emotional void that we have.
The excellent Marjorie Prime, which opens in limited release today, is a combination of science fiction, drama and dark comedy. But at its heart, the film pokes around in the delicate, unpleasant realities of what being in any sort of relationship requires. Adapting Jordan Harrison’s play, writer-director Michael Almereyda chronicles what sounds like a comforting scenario, presenting a near-future in which people can speak to a digital replica of their deceased loved ones.
But instead, Marjorie Prime reveals how deeply self-centered we are. We don’t want to connect with the departed — we just want them to keep saying they love us.
The movie stars Jon Hamm as Walter Prime, a hologram made to look like Walter, the late husband of Marjorie (Lois Smith), who’s now in her 80s and in the throes of dementia. The “real” Walter has been dead for more than a decade, but Marjorie enjoys talking to Walter Prime, who has a general sense of who Walter was and fills in the blanks of the dead man’s personality by talking to Marjorie.
As we quickly discover, however, Marjorie doesn’t necessarily want her Walter back — she wants one that will let her rewrite their history. At the start of the film, Walter Prime recites the story of how Walter proposed after they went to see My Best Friend’s Wedding. Marjorie quickly shakes her head in disapproval, instructing him to change the details: They went to Casablanca in a beautiful old revival house, not some Julia Roberts rom-com. Subservient, Walter Prime obeys. “I’ll be right here, Marjorie, whenever you need me,” he tells her, reassuringly. “I have all the time in the world.”
The rewriting of the past doesn’t stop there. Marjorie has picked Walter Prime to resemble Walter the way he looked when they first fell in love, hinting at the unhappiness their relationship suffered in later years that Marjorie Prime will eventually excavate. In the same house live Marjorie’s daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and her husband Jon (Tim Robbins), and they too are tweaking Walter Prime. Some things are minor — the married couple gets Walter Prime to encourage Marjorie to eat so her health doesn’t fail — while other revisions fundamentally change who Walter “was” when he was alive. Unclear about his profession, Walter Prime asks Jon what he did for a living. “Raping and pillaging,” Jon answers, a reference to a snide joke Tess would make about her father’s line of work, which was corporate investment. Walter Prime wants to understand Walter, but whether it’s Tess, Jon or Marjorie, he’s only getting their versions of the deceased man, which depending on their biases might not be like the “real” Walter much at all.
Plenty of sci-fi works have dealt with artificial intelligence and the possible consequences of its growing prevalence, including 2001, The Terminator, A.I. and Ex Machina. Commonly in these films, lifelike robots seem like a great idea but eventually lead to humanity’s ruin — routinely, they overthrow us after growing tired of being our slaves. Initially, Marjorie Prime teases us that it might go that direction — Hamm is so robotically calm, it’s as though he’s hiding something sinister — but the film’s great shock is that no such A.I. uprising occurs. And yet, Marjorie Prime’s living characters suffer nonetheless. They’re enslaved not by their technology but by the unhealthy emotional attachment they have to it.
As the film progresses, Tess, Jon and Marjorie start to develop their own relationships with Walter Prime. For Marjorie, he’s the husband she’d prefer to remember. Jon, however, feels compelled to treat Walter Prime like a coconspirator, revealing dark family secrets that no one else has told the hologram. It’s almost as if Jon wants the replica to take his side in some slow-burn dispute between himself and Tess. As for Tess, she can’t quite accept Walter Prime as her father, coldly referring to him as “it” and telling Jon, “It bothers me that you are helping it pretend to be some fountain-of-youth version of my dad.” Where the others find some psychological need to engage with Walter Prime, basically currying its favor, Tess only sees him, as she puts it, as “a mirror … a backboard.”
Some reviews have compared Marjorie Prime to Her, the 2013 film about a man who falls in love with an operating system, but the better precedent is actually the little-seen Greek satire Alps from The Lobster director Yorgos Lanthimos. In that film, a team of people hire themselves out as professional surrogates for dead lovers and family members: The client gives them roles to play — even dialogue to speak — and the team reenact real or fictional scenarios, helping to give the grieving some sense of closure.
But Marjorie Prime cuts deeper, in part because it’s even more clear-eyed about our naked desire to reshape our lives to our liking. The film starts out with Walter Prime as the only replica, but soon a subtle time shift occurs, and other characters die. And because we’ve gotten to know these people, we recognize how bizarre it is that the living repeat the process of, essentially, reprogramming the Primes. “You could smile less,” one character instructs a Prime later in the film, “that would be more… you.”
On one hand, these subtle adjustments are meant to make the Primes more believable as their real-life surrogates. But on the other, there’s a disturbing reanimation being undertaken by these characters, who want to preserve the idea of a person more than the reality of who that person actually was. Repeatedly in Marjorie Prime, the living have conversations with the Primes that they couldn’t in real life, as if hoping to have the last word now that the other person can’t put up a fight.
Ultimately, grief is at the core of Marjorie Prime as these characters keep bringing in holographic clones so that they’re not really separated from those they love. But that love is complicated, one-sided and greedy. Not surprisingly then, nobody in Almereyda’s film is entirely happy with his or her Prime. They want a version of the departed that unquestionably loves them. But what they discover is that, if you have to feed the other person his or her line every time, is that really love?