Director/Screenplay – Michael Almereyda, Based on the Play by Jordan Harrison, Producers – Michael Almereyda & Uri Singer, Photography – Sean Williams, Music – Mica Levi, Visual Effects Supervisor – Jonathan Podwil, Production Design – Javiera Varas. Production Company – Passage Pictures
Tim Robbins (Jon), Lois Smith (Marjorie), Geena Davis (Tess), Jon Hamm (Walter), Stephanie Andujar (Julie)
86 year-old Marjorie lives with her daughter Tess and Tess’s husband Jon. They have brought Marjorie a program that recreates a hologram simulation of her late husband Walter. The hologram is powered by an A.I. that is capable of adjusting as it absorbs memories that Marjorie and the others input. Jon in particular talks to Walter about the things it is not aware. After Marjorie dies, Jon and Tess create a hologram of her.
Michael Almereyda is a director that has always held interest in everything he has done, even if he has not gained a widely recognised name. He emerged to some acclaim in the 1990s with this third film, the arty vampire film Nadja (1994), the mummy film The Eternal/Trance (1998) and the modernised Hamlet (2000). For the next decade, Almereyda’s work consisted of a handful of documentaries, before he made a return to dramatic film with another modernised Shakespeare adaptation Cymbeline (2014) and the biopic Experimenter: The Story of Stanley Milgrim (2015), his best work to date.
The film is based on the play Marjorie Prime (2014) by Jordan Harrison. The play became widely acclaimed and was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as winning several other awards. (The original stage version featured Lois Smith as the titular Marjorie and she repeats the same role here). The film premiered at Sundance and went onto small theatrical screenings without doing much business.
I looked forward to Marjorie Prime but came away disappointed. Essentially, Michael Almereyda has given us Bicentennial Man (1999) minus the schmaltz and mounted as an indie drama. Or maybe you could look at it as one of the holodeck stories from Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94) expanded out as a family drama – a more low-key version of the sort you usually get in films like Steel Magnolias (1987) and August: Osage County (2013).
Marjorie Prime has an ambition to its ideas but they don’t emerge particularly well on the screen. The crucial failing of the film is that there is no real drama to it. Almereyda stages the whole film as a series of slow, talky conversations among the four characters to whom Tim Robbins’ Jon turns out to eventually be the central uniting figure. There are scenes where he reveals aspects the others/holograms do not know. You keep feeling that a better mounted film would have built a series of twists and revelations around each of these but there seems little of that – just random character insights. The scene that does work well is the final one with the holograms sitting around talking with one another in the absence of the late Jon and with the implication that this may be many years later and their conversation is an oddly alien repeat of the stories they have been told and insights into their characters/relationships, which gives a haunting suggestion of the things we have created continuing on long after we have gone.
Michael Almereyda has been able to call on a sterling cast line-up. With the exception of Stephanie Andujar’s maid, the entire show is played out between Tim Robbins, Geena Davis and Jon Hamm, most of whom have signed on as executive producers. The story and dual roles they get to play (as both human and their hologram counterpart in most cases) allow each to deliver solid performances especially Lois Smith, even if you suspect that these would have worked far more powerfully if they were being delivered on the stage.