Marjorie Prime’s Eerie Immersion Proves More Speculative Fiction Than Sci-Fi
By Caitlin Wolper
Editor’s Note: The final paragraph of this review has light spoilers.
Just a few seconds into Marjorie Prime, Marjorie tells Walter Prime, “I feel like I have to perform around you.” The irony is apparent:of the two, he is the performer. In the film’s indeterminate future, ‘Primes’ are a technological innovation: intelligent holograms of those lost that the bereaved can interact with. (The Primes learn who they were through stories and guidance given to them by the living.) Jon Hamm’s Walter Prime—a Prime of Marjorie’s (Lois Smith) deceased husband—is hauntingly convincing: His modulated voice, deftly controlled, conveys emotion without fully expressing it; the lightest facial twitches are wholly representative of someone ceaselessly learning as they listen. Hamm is equally potent playing an ever-developing hologram as he is playing the original Walter in flashbacks.
But what’s most fascinating about Marjorie Prime is how the movie positions its audience: As observers, we ourselves are nearly Primes, our opinions changing and developing based upon the exposition the Primes are given. We learn with them. However, there’s a clear distance between the Prime and the viewer; where the viewer might simply understand and absorb, a Prime will reinforce the speaker, saying, “I’ll remember that now.”
The refrain comes off as eerie, a feeling that’s pervasive throughout. Moments that would normally be considered upbeat are often underscored with unsettling music, confusing intention and impressing gravity. In what would otherwise be a meditative, gentle dramedy, the original soundtrack—created by Mica Levi, with selections from Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry and Bryce Dessner’s “Wave Movements Project”—keeps the underlying tension of the characters’ lives from flattening into something simple. Lois Smith is the fulcrum for these tensions: having been cast in the role four times (thrice as a play, once in the film) she thoroughly encapsulates Marjorie in all states of mind.
But as its source material is a play, Marjorie Prime occasionally struggles to find its footing as a movie. Jon (Tim Robbins) delivers a heartfelt monologue that comes off as contrived in its longevity, whereas in a play the speech would’ve been more powerful. Tirades about the past meant to educate Primes skew pedantic at times under the harsher scrutiny of a close-up camera. Available in film too are effects that prove the Primes to be technology, whereas in the play the Primes appear humans far longer: This discrepancy significantly changes how the plot is received, discarding the play’s initial ambiguity. But showing the Primes as holograms allows the situation to feel less ghostly, less perilous: it’s factual that these primes exist.
Though it’s been categorized as science fiction, the film feels like speculative fiction: this unsettling world seems both normaland possible. The Primes are new technology to grapple with, not a horrifying surprise or a grotesque invention: They’re man’s creation. They’re a sounding board, an audience for human stories, pre-programmed with empathy and a willingness to listen. There’s not much in way of plot besides the inevitable passing of time, but the story moves on easily with its circularity, its sorrow, all within its narrow geographic limitations.
At the movie’s end, three Primes have gathered and are having a conversation among themselves. Walter Prime, the oldest Prime, tells the other two about their unknown past, the past of those whose appearances they bear. But what he has learned is not always correct, shifted as his teller became over time. The past is remembered, but not without failed recollection or reshaped truth. Marjorie Prime asks us how we think we’ll be remembered; how we can rewrite our personal histories in their retelling.