PRINT Summer 2017



Michael Almereyda, Marjorie Prime, 2017, 2K video, color, sound, 98 minutes. From left: Tess (Geena Davis), Walter (Jon Hamm), and Marjorie (Lois Smith).

THERE HAVE LONG BEEN many ways of staging apparitions. One well-tried method is to present a troubled or slightly miscued conversation and then have a character tell the audience that one of the first talkers was a ghost. This is what happens in Jordan Harrison’s play, on which Michael Almereyda’s subtle and elusive film Marjorie Prime is based. Well, the phantasm in question is not a ghost in the old-fashioned sense. He is a stylish hologram, the visual representation of a computer program that stores memories and has astonishing learning capacities. It can also “look stuff up,” we are later told. It’s not a robot, it’s a Google-oriented AI simulation. When it makes mistakes, it’s a little too correct, too formal, not fallible or messy enough. It says, “I’ll remember that now,” instead of making a mental note and saying something human and irrelevant. It’s very quick. It says, “Would you like to hear some music?” and instantly the room is full of Poulenc.

In a movie, everyone is a simulation, and we have to be told that some people are supposed to be real.

Onstage, the hologram was an actor, and we had to be told it was a simulation, or keep being reminded by its occasional stilted slips. In a movie, the situation is exactly the reverse. Everyone is a simulation, and we have to be told that some people are supposed to be real. The whole movie is haunted by this simple fact, a philosophical possibility that must have been part of what drew Almereyda to the play in the first place. The script is his, and the design of the film keeps reminding us of its two-dimensional visual elements: shots of the sea, a pool, a house on the beach, a set of people, an aging mother, a daughter, a son-in-law, a helper—along with holograms of a dead husband and of the mother and daughter themselves in later avatars. All of this will seem material and three-dimensional only if we imagine it so, just as computer-based memories will work only if we help them out. The film’s (and the play’s) ironic last scene develops beautifully in this sense. The three holograms are all that is left, and they get on so much better than their real-life versions ever did. That this is felt as a loss is part of the pathos of both works.

But then the film has other, conflicting loyalties. To Harrison’s play itself, so that a rather forced, stagy look keeps creeping into what is supposed to be a movie. To the skills of individual actors—Lois Smith as the mother, Geena Davis as the daughter, Tim Robbins as the son-in-law, Stephanie Andujar as the helper, and Jon Hamm as the husband-hologram—who are all very good but are acting all the same, watchable as skilled performers rather than flat ghosts. It would be hard to argue commercially for a different delivery, but we might remember the instruction an acting coach once gave Clint Eastwood: “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

And then the film wants to be kinder than the play, wants to make the characters less ugly. This is a generous impulse, but it also goes against what we might think are some of the possibilities of the medium. There is also the music. It is sympathetic and connected when written by older composers and brought in by the computer simulations as part of their care program, but brilliantly eerie and worrying when simply offered as soundtrack. This score, by Mica Levi, seeks to unsettle us in the way the holograms might but don’t.

In the end, though, the movie does successfully pose the question all good apparition stories ask. It’s not, Are the apparitions real? That’s our favorite question, but it’s too easy to answer, and the answer (yes and no) doesn’t get us anywhere. The question is how to make memories, or any other form of mental content, as real as the material world; how to remember our loved ones, for example, not only as well as a computer program could (or a photo album) but better. Although just as well would be a start.

Michael Wood is the author of Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much (New Harvest, 2015) and On Empson (Princeton University Press, 2017), among other titles.