Most fictions about artificial intelligence are not, of course, about artificial intelligence. They use the topic as a metaphor, a scale on which to weigh and measure the assets and liabilities of humanity itself. “Marjorie Prime,” a new film written and directed by Michael Almereyda, adapted from Jordan Harrison’s acclaimed play, is an alternately stately and brisk story in which the metaphor poses questions about mortality, loss and who our imagined “best selves” might turn out to actually be once they’re released from our own assessment.
The great Lois Smith reprises the role she played in both the 2014 Los Angeles and 2015 New York productions of the play, an old woman named Marjorie with an unspecified disease who has been given a new companion. “He” is Walter, her dead husband, reincarnated in an in-his-prime version played by Jon Hamm.
In his early interactions with Marjorie, Walter, a holographic-generated “prime” whose personality software is constructed both from what he left behind and from memories of the people close to him, is kind, solicitous and a little wide-eyed. Whenever Marjorie “reminds” him of a trait the actual Walter had, or a shared experience, his prime obediently says, “I’ll remember that now.” (The movie is set in an unspecified point in the future, though if you do the math around the video release of a movie that looms large in Walter and Marjorie’s early story, it would seem to be around 2050.)
Marjorie’s daughter, Tess, has prickly feelings about having this Walter in the house, while her husband, Jon, is more optimistic about the digital ghost’s potential for service. As you might infer from the title, household roles subsequently shift, and then shift some more. The characters’ quiet desperation to hold on to the ones they’ve loved becomes a sort of trap.
The movie has certain affinities with other recent critical favorites, but is less knotty than “Ex Machina” (2014) and less sentiment driven than “Her” (2013). It is not particularly concerned with gender roles or even tender feelings as such. Tim Robbins and Geena Davis, as Jon and Tess, play their characters with close-to-the-vest discipline, and Ms. Smith tempers Marjorie’s physical vulnerability with a wry skepticism.
At one point, a character points out that whenever humans revisit a memory, they are not recollecting the actual event: rather they are remembering what they remember. In that respect, the extent to which our memories make up our selves is changing without us even realizing. The “primes” here don’t work that way. Or do they? And what difference does that make to their interaction with humans, and vice versa?
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