By Devan Coggan
August 17, 2017 at 03:13 PM EDT
Jason Robinette/Sundance Institute

Marjorie Prime may be a sci-fi movie, but there are no flying cars, aliens, or far-flung solar systems. Most of the action takes place in a single beach house, where almost every scene consists of two people talking. The plot hinges on a distinctly sci-fi concept — deceased loved ones can be resurrected in the form of a “Prime,” a hologram designed to absorb information and hold conversations about the past — but writer-director Michael Almereyda (Experimenter) isn’t interested in exploring the mechanics of artificial intelligence. Instead, Marjorie Prime is a quiet, contemplative family drama about memory. And about how those memories shape who we are.

Lois Smith stars as the titular Marjorie, reprising her role from Jordan Harrison’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-nominated stage play. Marjorie is an 86-year-old widower, and with both her health and her memory fading, she starts to rely on a hologram version of her husband, Walter (Jon Hamm) — who’s been dead for about 15 years. With guidance from Marjorie’s adult daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins), Walter listens, learns, and eventually holds entire conversations with Marjorie, reminiscing about a past she doesn’t remember and that he wasn’t even there for.

As the story unfolds, Almereyda raises questions about how perspective and time can alter memory: If a painful family event is never talked about or remembered, did it even really happen? At one point, Walter recounts a long-ago date with Marjorie, where they watched My Best Friend’s Wedding together — only for Marjorie to ask him to revise the story to a more romantic movie choice, like Casablanca. Before long, that becomes the truth they both accept.

But although Marjorie Prime hints at deep themes, it doesn’t always give them the emotional weight they deserve. The phenomenal Black Mirror episode “San Junipero” explored similar ideas of aging, romance, and living on after death through virtual reality, and Marjorie Prime feels like it never quite reaches the same heights. Marjorie’s family spends so much of their time sitting around talking about their lives instead of living them that it’s hard for the audience to ever emotionally connect with any of them.

Still, all four lead actors breathe life into characters who, on their own, would fall flat. Smith’s Marjorie is regretful, hopeful, loving, and disoriented, often all at once, and Hamm is fantastic as the holographic Walter, adjusting his performance subtly so he appears sometimes devastatingly human and sometimes unsettlingly robotic. (Hamm’s mechanical movements bring to mind Michael Fassbender’s dual android roles in this year’s Alien: Covenant — and not just because one of Fassbender’s characters is also named Walter.) Marjorie Prime in itself feels not unlike Walter’s hologram — almost real and almost human, but not quite flesh and blood. B-

 

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