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SFIFF Review: ‘Marjorie Prime’ Explores the Ethical Issues of Applying Emerging AI Technologies

Jon Hamm in “Marjorie Prime”

2017 San Francisco International Film Festival: Every once in a while, a barely science fiction-drama blend gem will come along, subtly exploring large issues. “Marjorie Prime” is one of those films. A popular subject of early sci-fi films, virtual and augmented reality technology now exists in the world we live in, albeit in its early stages of development. Companies like Sony and Samsung, along with a slew of Silicon Valley startups, now sell successful VR and AR products; it’s an exploding industry.

“Marjorie Prime,” adapted from Jordan Harrison’s stage play by screenwriter and director Michael Almereyda (“Experimenter” (2015), “Hamlet” (2000), and the David Lynch-produced “Nadja” (1995)), is a subtle sci-fi comedy that explores the potential uses of virtual reality in the near future. In this story, Harrison and Almereyda focus on one application of VR, a marketable service that quite literally reanimates deceased loved ones as a service to grieving people, compiling each personality from an advanced AI system that gathers all digital information of the person to create an uncanny replica.

Walter Prime (Jon Hamm), the unusual protagonist, is a hologram of the deceased Walter Prime, used to help his aged widow, Marjorie (Lois Smith), recall fond memories of them together and help fill the void of his death 15 years prior. Eventually, however, the intent of this product backfires as “Walter” begins to interact with other members of Marjorie’s family. His presence stirs up old, unresolved issues with her daughter, Tess (Geena Davis), and son-in-law, Jon (Tim Robbins), causing them to question this technology and its effectiveness in providing comfort to the elderly.

Unknowingly, Tess and Jon need this reminder, this remnant of their deceased father (and father-in-law) to help them cope with and understand their life with him. They are an unhappy couple struggling to find fulfillment in their marriage. A scene during which the two find themselves caught in a rainstorm at the country club where Walter’s funeral was held serves as a fitting metaphor for the ruts in their relationship. Jon sits at a piano at the club, with The Band’s Bob Dylan-penned “I Shall Be Released” in mind, but he can’t remember how to play it. Jess finishes the haunting piano cover beautifully. The importance of human to human interaction is exemplified through this quiet yet powerful scene.

The pacing is painstakingly slow, but not to the detriment of the film. Its lengthy periods of silence are filled with a foreboding score and gorgeous visuals of nature. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams uses filler shots of the surrounding beach house where Marjorie, Tess and Jon live through an opaque lens – a sometimes blurred filter, especially through flashbacks. This adds layers to the film’s most important motif: the distortion of reality through memories.

Jon calls memory “the cemetery of the brain.” The older we get, the more our memories change because, as Tess says, we only remember memories and how we felt about them at the time, not the events surrounding the memories, and how we feel about certain events in our lives may change as we age.

These VR holograms are like caretakers and are capable of interaction, but they don’t understand simple language nuances, such as sarcasm. Almereyda and Harrison argue that a person cannot be replaced, no matter how much we try to replicate them. Over the next two decades, Marjorie passes, and Tess gets a hologram to help her grieve. “You want to be more human, too,” the fake Marjorie explains to Tess after she attempts to convey her anxiety. Not long after, Tess commits suicide, and Jon creates a hologram for her, knowing very well that it will hurt him more than heal him after seeing the cyclical effect it had on those before him.

Hamm plays the part to perfection, with his soothing monotone voice and naive, inquisitive facial reactions. Both as an aging woman struggling with cognitive decline and as her semi-real counterpart, Lois Smith is a revelation. Through pictures covering Smith’s lifespan shown throughout the film, Almereyda gracefully pays his respects to the stage legend and character actress. Robbins and Davis play their roles with soul. Let us hope that Davis continues her return to the big screen with more weighty roles, because her presence has been sorely missed.

The main conversation Harrisson and Almereyda open up is as follows: Just because humankind has the capability of creating something, does not mean it should. Marjorie is too vulnerable and close to the issue to see anything wrong with having a holographed Walter around, so Tess and Jon act as the moral compasses of the film. They serve as vehicles for Harrison and Almereyda to instigate this ethical debate among their viewers.

Almereyda is no stranger to exploring moral cautionary tales given his innovative modern-day update of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” However, he explored the convoluted lines of morality more closely with his last film, “Experimenter.” One can think of that biopic about social psychologist Stanley Milgram, and the radical methods he used in conducting his research about humankind’s willingness to obey authority, as a nonfiction companion piece to “Marjorie Prime,” thematically.

The lyrics to The Band’s “I Shall Be Released,” the original song of which is finally played near the ending, hit very close to home within the story, underscoring the film’s necessary exploration into the future of medical advancement to cure Alzheimer’s, ALS, MS, Hippocampal Sclerosis, and other cognitive degenerative brain diseases, similar to what Marjorie suffers from, and the moral questions these advancements beget:

They say everything can be replaced

They say every distance is not near

So I remember every face

Of every man who put me here


I see my light come shinin’

From the west down to the east

Any day now, any day now

I shall be released

Perhaps letting go, naturally progressing through the grieving process, and appreciating the love you experienced in your life is enough for the human mind. Jon grows old, just like Marjorie, yet the holograms of his fallen family members linger, with nothing to talk about but their programmed memories together for eternity. “How nice that we can love somebody,” Marjorie’s AI utters. To have loved each other at all is the greatest gift these characters received from life.

Marjorie Prime” is produced by Passage Pictures, and is distributed by Film Rise.

GRADE: (★★★)