Marjorie whiles away her time chatting to her dead husband, Walter. He appears not as an old man but a thrusting buck in the prime of his life, suit tailored and hair slicked, looking every inch like Don Draper.
Walter isn’t a figment of her dottled imagination, though, nor a ghost: he’s a Prime, a computer simulation that’s part analyst, part baby-sitter and, perhaps, part conscious being. Walter Prime is forever honing his algorithms to appear more like his subject, learning his mannerisms, picking up on the intricacies of his personality. He’s not the only Prime – later we meet Marjorie’s Prime, and later still that of another member of the family; each one is a distant but familiar shadow of the person they simulate.
Marjorie Prime began life on the stage – Jordan Harrison’s play was nominated for a Pulitzer – and writer/director Michael Almereyda doesn’t expand a great deal upon Harrison’s hermetic little world, with the majority of the action confined to a single, beautiful coastal house. The camera remains largely static, studying the subtle ebb and flow of emotion, which requires some deft acting from John Ham, Lois Smith, Tim Robbins and, especially, Geena Davis, who shines as Marjorie’s jaded daughter.
There are obvious parallels with Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, although where that show tends to stretch a single idea to its grotesque logical conclusion, Marjorie Prime is a deep, placid lake teeming with concepts that swim in your peripheral vision, often glimpsed only from afar.
Its main concern is with memory: how the way we remember people differs from the way they really are; what it means for our relationships when our memories begin to fade, or when we deliberately dull them through drugs or alcohol; whether we can keep some element of a deceased loved one alive through the firing synapses in our squishy organic head-computers. But it also mulls more fundamental questions of existence, such as whether computers can ever be truly conscious.
With its hazy cinematography and languid pacing, Marjorie Prime washes over you like a dream, but in this case, it’s a dream that will stay with you rather than fading away.
First published in City A.M.