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213. US Director Michael Almereyda’s Film “Marjorie Prime” (2017) (USA): Commendable Adaptation of a Good American Play on Film with Noteworthy Performances and Musical Choices

By Jugu Abraham
213. US director Michael Almereyda’s film “Marjorie Prime” (2017) (USA):  Commendable adaptation of a good American play on film with noteworthy performances and musical choices
Nobody is who he was. Nobody will be who he is now” 
--lines spoken in the film, adapted from Jordan Harrison’s play Marjorie Prime, a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize and the winner of the 2016 Horton Foote Prize for an Outstanding New American play

US director Michael Almereyda made some fine decisions to make Marjorie Prime. He chose an amazing play that would only be enhanced by the tools of modern cinema, used with restraint and class. He achieved that by scripting the film himself. His next winning decision was to retain actress Lois Smith in the role of the old Marjorie, a role she had played on stage. The director’s next winner was the casting of actress Geena Davis as Marjorie’s daughter Tess and actor Tim Robbins as Marjorie’s son-in-law, Jon. The fourth bright decision was to choose the talented Mica Levi to contribute the original music of the film. All win-win decisions.
The film/play deals with real people interacting with holograms (“Primes” created through memories of others) that can intelligently respond to you.  The responses of these artificially intelligent (AI) creations are as interesting as the responses of robots in the recent fascinating sci-fi film from UK, Ex Machina (2014). Playwright Harrison does not delve into the science of developing the holographic characters but instead concentrates on how real humans react to the responses of the holographic characters whose knowledge is based on information provided by the interacting humans themselves.  Harrison is an alumnus of Stanford University, where interesting developments in AI have been emerging and continues to emerge. When Marjorie Prime won the Sloan prize at the Sundance Film Festival the citation was itself revealing of the maturity of the film. The jury awarded the film for its "imaginative and nuanced depiction of the evolving relationship between humans and technology, and its moving dramatization of how intelligent machines can challenge our notions of identity, memory and mortality.”

213. US director Michael Almereyda’s film “Marjorie Prime” (2017) (USA):  Commendable adaptation of a good American play on film with noteworthy performances and musical choices

Marjorie (Lois Smith)  interacts verbally with the hologram of
her husband Walter (Jon Hamm), as he looked when he was 40.

Film has a clear advantage over theatre when it comes to holograms. Early in the film, Marjorie (Lois Smith) walks through the leg of her dead husband Walter’s hologram (Jon Hamm).  As the film progresses, real characters keep interacting with holograms of live persons as well, when they are alone. (Harrison and Almereyda are more interested in the psychological reactions of humans to spoken words of holograms)  These interactions can be switched off at the human’s will.  These possibilities are fiction now but could soon be reality as AI makes rapid strides with time.
The Harrison/ Almereyda tale is reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's films going back in time to discover and rediscover facts and incidents and record reactions that unfold new perspectives of the present day characters by these discoveries.  The artificial holograms act as a catalyst for humans to unravel what they had subconsciously kept hidden.
Almereyda’s film makes visual connection with two images and one feature film. The two images are the saffron flags installation called ‘The Gates’ in New York’s Central Park by Christo and Jeanne-Claude (see ) and a painting that reminds you of Alain Resnais’ surreal images in his black and white film Last Year at Marienbad (1961). The film referred to is the Hollywood film My Best Friend’s Wedding  (1997). The common factors in all three are wistful recollections of human relationships from the most abstract to the least abstract. The saffron flags of ‘The Gates’ made a connection in Marjorie’s mind to her beloved dead son.  The images of the painting recalling Last Year at Marienbad could nudge a cineaste to parallels between the two pairs of couples in Marjorie Prime (Marjorie/Walter and Tess/Jon) and the unnamed man and woman in the French film. As in the Resnais film, you the viewer questions the veracity of all the statements of the three principal living human characters when the hologram versions innocently and logically question what was stated earlier by the three humans. As in the Resnais film, memory and visual association (e.g., the saffron flags of ‘The Gate’ which are never shown in Marjorie Prime but discussed verbally) are crucial. Even the marriages of the two pairs are tenuous.  As in the My Best Friend’s Wedding plot, there is a third person in the Marjorie/ Walter relationship.  Much of these one suspects are likely to be the contribution of the director/screenplaywriter Almereyda. The final shot of the film is truly arresting—the waves of the ocean seem to have frozen in time just as the painting that recalls the Resnais film.

213. US director Michael Almereyda’s film “Marjorie Prime” (2017) (USA):  Commendable adaptation of a good American play on film with noteworthy performances and musical choices

Two real people, Jon (Tim Robbins) and his wife Tess (Geena Davis) interact

One of the fascinating conversations occurs between Tess and the hologram of her mother Marjorie. The hologram comments “Pronouns are powerful things” following a statement of Tess for the hologram’s benefit.  Tess is taken aback and answers “That would be more her. No, you,” indicating Tess’ confusion between the real Marjorie and the hologram of Marjorie.
In a film where visuals and spoken words take the center stage, music is not to be overlooked. Composer Mica Levi is a rising star—proving her mettle in Jackie (2016) and Under the Skin (2013). Almereyda’s choice of Poulenc and Beethoven pieces and Ms Levi’s original music combined with intelligent soundtrack editing by Kathryn Schubert (who had worked with Jim Jarmusch on Only Lovers Left Alive in 2013) embellish the film.
Tim Robbins was never as interesting as he is in this film providing interesting variation to his character. Lois Lane is a delight to watch as the real Marjorie and the holographic Marjorie. Geena Davis and Jon Hamm do not disappoint. 

213. US director Michael Almereyda’s film “Marjorie Prime” (2017) (USA):  Commendable adaptation of a good American play on film with noteworthy performances and musical choices

Son-in-law Jon (Robbins) briefs the hologram of his 'dead father-in-law Walter
with secrets about Marjorie's and Walter's past
(Note the hologram's robotic posture)

Marjorie Prime ought to be a frontrunner in the Oscar race in several departments—acting, music, screenplay and editing. It is one of the most engaging sci-fi films since Ex Machina but a casual viewer, who misses out on the details, might find it unworthy of acclaim. The sci-fi element is minimal but the film is more concerned about memory, aging, and how people react to emotionless, logical questions of robotic creations. In many ways, the balance of sci-fi and human behavior changing with time in Marjorie Prime is close to the balance achieved by Andrei Tarkovsky in Solaris (1972).
This low-budget film will be a strong contender for being included among the top 10 films of 2017 for this critic.
P.S. The film Marjorie Prime won the Alfred P Sloan prize for feature films at the Sundance Film Festival. Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972) has been reviewed on this blog.

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