Thursday, September 14, 2017

Marjorie Prime

MARJORIE PRIME              B                                
USA  (98 mi)  2017  d:  Michael Almereyda             Official site

While this is a serious exploration of artificial intelligence, what it lacks is any hint of humor, making this an overly somber and particularly unsettling experience, where it makes you wonder if perhaps the future’s not what it’s cracked up to be.  Written in an extremely theatrical manner, where the speech itself doesn’t resemble normal speech, but is spoken in a particularly understated and dispassionate manner, as if all life has been sucked out of the participants.  We soon learn why, as one of the characters isn’t human, but is a carefully chosen hologram programmed to represent a specific stage in life of someone who is deceased, yet the artificial memory’s accuracies are much more consistent than our own, as our take seems to change based on the changing moods, exploring all manner of possibilities, like what we hoped for, or possibly wished had happened, as opposed to what actually happened, often dramatically remembered as much worse than it was.  In other words our recollections are all over the place, across all emotional spectrums, while the hologram is always precise, exactly the same each time, unable to sense altered moods, where people often wish to hear a variation on a theme rather than the identical theme on repeat.  What makes this particular A.I. experience flawed is that they are programmed by humans, subject to their own forgetfulness or mistakes, where it’s interesting that errors or mistakes are actually programmed into some of these memories after a while, becoming the standard bearer for memory, repeated unfailingly, but wrong.  This is a strange concept to deal with, as there’s no placebo or neutral test group that hasn’t been altered, no one to turn to for corrections or accuracy, instead we’re all infected with this same kind of bug or virus that affects us all, unalterably changing the way we remember things.  Of course, what this suggests is that this is what we do anyway, embellish or dramatize our recollections to make them just a little bit better or worse than the really were, often with no one else around to correct us.  This is heady stuff, certainly not your typical movie, where Almereyda has directed a film based upon Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer-nominated play exploring the ramifications of the future. 

Appropriately, the story begins sometime in the future, where the central character is an aging Marjorie, superbly played by the 86-year old queen of stage and screen, Lois Smith, who couldn’t be more natural in the role, as her memories are typically fading, often forgotten altogether, only to become completely coherent on another day.  It’s worth remembering that Smith made her Broadway and television debut as a high school student, worked with James Dean in EAST OF EDEN (1955), and was Jack Nicholson’s sister in Five Easy Pieces (1970), but is now largely recognized for her theatrical work, where she originated the role in this film in 2014 while performing at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, followed by a Broadway run, before being adapted for the screen.  She is easily recognizable for being cantankerous, moody, often unyielding, even bitter, where she’s not above using sarcasm to make her point, where despite being forgetful, she likes to be the center of attention, often remembering how easily people were drawn to her and what a good life she had when she was so much younger. Appropriately, perhaps, her companion now is Walter Prime (Jon Hamm), a 47-year old A.I. hologram of her deceased husband, whose good looks are obvious while his memory is sharp as a tack, though having to repeatedly remind her to eat and take her medicine.  What might surprise you here is that they really never leave the confines of their four walls, talking at length, drudging up old memories, or even favorite stories she likes to hear, as he’ll recall one of “her” memories.  They even have the capacity to go back in time with their memories, yet the use of flashbacks is barely touched upon, keeping us in the present.  There is more to the family, as Marjorie has a daughter Tess (Geena Davis), who finds it odd that her mother would prefer the companionship of an A.I. creature to her own family, as the A.I. is carefully constructed around “her” needs and interests, while the family has their own opinions on matters, including their own lives.  Tess’s husband is Jon (Tim Robbins), something of a technology expert, as he’s the one who programs the holograms, feeding them memories and rounding out their lives with useful information.  Strangely, without notice, we realize Marjorie has died and Tess is struggling to have a relevant conversation with Marjorie Prime, her own hologram of her mother, finding it difficult to share intimacy. 

While Jon seems to be the force behind the usefulness of artificial intelligence, he grows weary of having to fill them in on all the pertinent details, as the programming takes painstaking precision, something that he struggles with as he grows older.  This idea of passing down memories through virtual reality is something of a stunner, as few of us have ever considered the ramifications before, yet this family’s future relies upon the use of holograms, as the A.I. creatures will outlive us all, capable of retaining our memories.  The only real flashback that takes us outside the four walls is when Tess recalls Jon asking to marry her, where mysteriously it takes place in what resembles a virtual reality museum that appears to be the spitting image of Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (L'Année Dernière à Marienbad) (1961), which is itself an experimental exploration of fading memories, suggesting they have a shelf life before they all but disappear.  But what’s most memorable about the film are the spectacular grounds where they are filmed, palatial estates where former rulers of Bavaria once lived that now seem frozen in time.  This is an extremely clever device that can be done cinematically that most likely never happened onstage, yet the effect is staggering for anyone familiar with the Resnais film, as it is one of the modern era miracles of cinema.  To linger in these hallowed grounds only intensifies the film, but this is a happy moment from the past, where returning to the present presents troubling conflicts, yet one of the best moments is a brief argument between Tess and Marjorie Prime, where Marjorie asks if she’d like to hear some music.  Tess recalls they always battled over things like that, having different tastes, but the stirring music of The Band plays, one of their most poetic songs written by Bob Dylan, The Band - I Shall Be Released - YouTube (3:16), paralleling an earlier moment when Tess was seen playing it on the piano, so it’s obviously among her favorites, becoming a seminal moment in the film, as the lyrics suddenly become emblematic of what the film offers, with each of us striving for a kind of spiritual redemption.  What follows is yet another mystical moment, like the acceleration into the future in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), taking us into another time and space continuum, as Almereyda both rapidly advances and retreats with sequences of time, where left out of the equation is any human presence, replaced by a virtual reality world.  For all the intimations of sci-fi and its effect on mankind, it’s the flat acting style that grows wearying after a while, creating a zombie, ghost-like presence, yet holograms are the survivors of the human species, otherwise known as the afterlife here on earth, the living remains of humans that have perished.  It’s an eerie thought, yet what’s missing are the joys and sorrows of being human, the kinds of thoughts embraced by Laurie Anderson in her meditation on life and death, Heart of a Dog (2015), the unexpected moments that define our vulnerability as we face an all but uncertain future.

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