There are two kinds of science fiction. There are the big-budgeted spectacles that seek to explore uncharted universes, with lavish set designs and ambitious narratives. And then there is the low-profile, cerebral kind of sci-fi filmmaking, with less of a claim to broad studio backing, yet an augmented focus on the bold storytelling that makes sci-fi such a beloved genre.
Michael Almereyda’s new movie Marjorie Prime falls into the latter category. An adaptation of Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer Prize nominated play of the same name, it is strictly a chamber piece, focusing on a handful of characters and their interactions within the confined space of a beachside villa.
So how does the science fiction fit into this secluded scenario? It comes in the form of a newly-formed technology known as a ‘Prime’, a holographic system that can take the form of deceased loved ones. In Marjorie Prime, this hologram comes in the form of Walter, as played by Jon Hamm, the recently departed husband of the film’s lead character, the eponymous Marjorie (Lois Smith). However, the trickiness of the technology is that the ‘Prime’ does not come with a fully automated memory bank: it must learn about itself, and its past, from those who surround it.
What this amounts to is a succession of engaging, sometimes lugubrious, even humorous exchanges between Marjorie, Walter Prime, Marjorie’s daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and Tess’ husband Jon (Tim Robbins). And it is in these conversations that Marjorie Prime soars, dealing with complex issues of memory, human sociability and the impact of mortality on those who are left behind.
What is refreshing about Almereyda’s approach to this is that he lets the dialogue do the literal and figurative ‘talking’. With his adaptation of Harrison’s play, he allows the themes I’ve mentioned to follow through into the film, simply directing the actors to play the moments with a naturalism that welcomes us into this home. The opening sequence, for example, is a drawn-out yet calmly charming reminiscence of times past, between Marjorie and Walter Prime. Walter tells Marjorie of Tony, the dog she grew up with but who sadly passed away, as well as their agreeing to marry whilst watching a young Cameron Diaz in My Best Friend’s Wedding. Marjorie reacts to these musings with both melancholy and joy, at times displaying a desire to change events that have passed, and hide details of other incidents in order to protect the mental wellbeing of those closest to her. It is challenging material, particularly for a film’s introduction, yet is delivered with such authenticity that the deeper implications of its discourse arise seamlessly from the experience.
This authenticity can be accounted to the passive cinematography and illuminating performances from its cast, smoothing out the narrative edges. Almereyda and DP Sean Williams rely primarily on static, mid to close range shots, capturing all the flickers and wrinkles of emotion on display: this allows for an intimacy that you don’t often find with films of this ilk, a quality that evokes the mysterious brilliance of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. As with Garland’s film, Almereyda also extracts some wonderful performances from his cast, providing the material that close-ups were made for. Hamm is ideal casting as the enchanting enigma that is Walter Prime, bringing a lucid innocence to his suave and sophisticated physicality. Geena Davis also returns in fine form here, delving deep into a character who is suffering from traumas that she chooses to repress, and yet are forced to the surface as a result of the invasion of privacy that the Primes instigate, however unintentionally.
Ultimately though, it is with Lois Smith that Marjorie Prime mostly relies on to deliver the goods: with the experience of reprising a role that she’s performed on Broadway on a number of occasions, Smith has perfected the sweet-natured, nostalgic Marjorie, imbuing her with a tragic sense of inevitability, but a desire to live out the few years she has remaining with a pensive penchant for looking back all too often on those moments she has already lived, adapting their intricacies so she can remember living her life to its fullest potential.
It is with the sharp and expressive conversations between these thoroughly fleshed-out characters that Marjorie Prime enters into the upper echelon of intellectual science-fiction. Rather than pontificating for the sake of pretension, the characters within Almereyda’s film engage with these issues on a human level: unlike a dystopian and dominantly visual film such as Blade Runner 2049, Marjorie Prime must trust in its dialogue and performances to keep it afloat. And these elements succeed, with at times witty, at times melancholy aplomb.