Digital Life After Death: Almereyda's Marjorie Prime
Every year like clockwork we get at least one movie about the possibility of life after death. Usually it's a religion-heavy, typically Christian, feel-good about a child who has a brush with death, or an angel that guides a family after the death of a child, or a dog that dies and becomes a guardian angel, or an angel that comes to earth to help you figure it all out, or... you get the gist. It's rare that we get a non-religious movie about life after death, especially one that isn't in the horror genre. Michael Almereyda's Marjorie Prime (2017) is in a lot of ways the rare atheist's life after death movie; a musing on memory and technology as a road to immortality, albeit it a flawed one.
Considering Marjorie Prime is adapted from a play that largely takes place in one living room, the film never seems to fall into the trap of visual stagnation that many other stage-to-screen adaptions do. The movie focuses largely on faces; expressions, reactions, quiet contemplation and the ravages of aging. Marjorie (Lois Smith), an elderly woman suffering from an unspecified dementia, spends her days mulling around her home and speaking to her late husband Walter (Jon Hamm) through a computer program called Prime. This program projects a younger middle-aged version of Walter into her living room, the image she has chosen to remember him by. The more Marjorie speaks to this Walter Prime, the more the program learns about who the real Walter was through her memories of him and adjusts the projection's attitude accordingly.
Her daughter Tess (Geena Davis), who with her husband Jon (Tim Robins) is living part time with the ailing Marjorie, is disturbed by both the presence of Walter Prime and the conversations Marjorie has with him. She finds the concept of the prime off-putting, an inadequate stand-in for her dead father, and also takes issue with the way Marjorie retells her stories and interacts with the program; they don't seem to line up with Tess's own complicated childhood experiences, including a dead sibling Marjorie seems to have completely forgotten. Jon, on the other hand, is more concerned for Tess and how she's been handling the slow death of her mother.
The acting in Marjorie Prime is superb. Watching Lois Smith navigate blindly through Marjorie's life with the help from the Prime program is a fascinating look into our own memories. Geena Davis steals the show as the daughter who is still haunted by the past; she simply cannot handle the emotional burden of losing both her mother and the only other witness to the complexities of her childhood. Tim Robins is the perfect foil to them both, as the well-meaning and open-minded keeper of the present.
The movie also makes perfect use of flashbacks. By contrasting the stories being told in the present, with the realities of the past, we are forced to question our own thoughts and recollections. In one scene, Tess likens memories to carbon copies, saying that when we remember we're really remembering the last time we thought of the same memory. Therefore, the more we drudge up memories, the fuzzier they become. Details get lost and desires get mixed with actualities. Marjorie's memory of sitting on a park bench in the snow looking at the Christo Gates when she was young actually happened sitting on the couch watching a news story about it on TV. However, as far as the Prime program is concerned, Marjorie's flawed recollection becomes the canon narrative, blurring the line between truth and memory and yet immortalizing Marjorie's thoughts.
Memories are overarching specters in our lives – haunting us in good and bad ways. Marjorie finds some peace in being able to separate and store her thoughts in the Prime program as her actual mind slowly deteriorates. Tess, on the other hand, is haunted by seeing her mother's memories manifest as a separate and incomplete entity. Where Marjorie found comfort, Tess found herself disturbed by this disembodiment, an unsatisfactory replacement for real human interaction and a ghostly reminder of looming death.
I've always thought of the internet as a sort of living memory, a place where you get to smooth over your own edges, or even make them harder – who's really going to stop you? Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like already create an image and impression of us without telling the real truth. People will post beautifully lit or staged photos of outstanding moments in their lives, but we never see a photo of them sitting in a room in their pajamas posting that beautiful photo on social media – that narrative is lost, and with it a layer of truth is lost. Yet factual truth is really secondary to immortalization. Like memories, time smoothes over edges and we are remembered typically for our best times and our worst times. Pre-internet we remembered famous people through choice quotes, anecdotes, and basic life facts. Collective consciousness converted these people into symbols as a way to hold onto some piece of who they were. Now, with wide access to cameras and computers, you don't need to be famous to be immortalized in the same way. Marjorie Prime smartly takes place in the not so distant future because quite frankly the technology is already here.
Yet computer programs still can't understand the subtleties of emotional memory. In one scene Jon corrects Walter Prime by letting it know Marjorie's family actually had two dogs with the same name, reflecting on how at some point the memories must have merged and two dogs became one in Marjorie's mind. Even up until the end of the film the audience is learning new facts about who bought the dogs and who named them. Yet the facts of the dogs aren't nearly as important as what those dogs symbolized – for Marjorie a point of joy, for Tess a reminder of pain and death. But for the Prime, the dog symbolizes nothing other than a memory to be stored and repeated when prompted. The movie ends with a somewhat haunting scene of three different Primes of three different family members reminiscing with each other over the memories they were programmed to know. A cold picture of both the possiblity and the limitations of immortality.