Marjorie Prime (4 stars)

Marjorie Prime

Thoughtful, beautifully performed sci-fi, with Jon Hamm and Geena Davis

Plenty of bigger films about artificial intelligence have been made lately, but few are more elegantly haunting than this quietly charged chamber piece from experimental indie director Michael Almereyda (Nadja, 2000's Hamlet). Couching universal themes in achingly human specifics, Almereyda's adaptation of Jordan Harrison's Pulitzer Prize-nominated play locks in on four veteran leads to pinpoint every nuance.

A familiar-looking, near-future setting finds 86-year-old dementia sufferer Marjorie (Lois Smith) chatting with younger husband Walter (Jon Hamm) at a beach house. Yet he's not Walter: he's a virtual hologram or 'prime', designed to resemble Marjorie's deceased husband years earlier and programmed with facts from their history. Also on hand are Marjorie's daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins), whose debates about Walter open cans of philosophical worms.

The conceptual conversation piece that ensues could've seemed starchy or Black Mirror-light, but it comes layered with smarts, feeling and ambiguity. As Walter and Marjorie modulate their responses to each other with warm empathy and cool calculation, divisions between them blur; meanwhile, Tess and Jon's views on the prime wobble. Is the holo-Hamm infantilising Marjorie, or does its flawless recall help with her illness?

Themes of memory, motherhood and mourning emerge, hinged on questions of what makes us human. If we're the sum of our memories, what happens when they fade? Are memory and identity subject to perception? And are the mnemonically enhanced primes more human than human? As surprise narrative jumps toss these questions into fresh perspective, cast and director handle each shift with expressive fluency.

Mica Levi's score hums with querulous emotion; DP Sean Price Williams' images navigate sterile environments and close-up intimacies dextrously. The leads reward that focus with shows of tender humanity: while Davis reveals the cracks in Tess's poise, Smith's playful-to-pained performance is magnetic. Between them they remind us the human face can still be science fiction's keenest special effect.

Limited release from Fri 10 Nov.

Marjorie Prime

  • 4 stars
  • 2017
  • US
  • 1h 38min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Michael Almereyda
  • Cast: Lois Smith, Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, Tim Robbins
  • UK release: 10 November 2017

Marjorie (Smith) is 86 and suffers from dementia; she often chats with her younger husband Walter (Hamm), except that he’s not Walter, he’s a hologram designed to look like her deceased husband. Almereyda’s adaptation of a Pulitzer-nominated play is a quietly charged chamber piece with four veteran leads, layered with…