They take a little getting used to, these Prime models, but Marjorie (Lois Smith) is growing to like her substitute for her late husband Walter (Jon Hamm), who is a computer simulation designed to keep her company now she is in her eighty-sixth year and does not have the same number of people around her that she used to. Walter Prime has to be coached in the correct memories she and her spouse shared, but he is a fast learner and soon Marjorie is chatting away with him as if he were the real thing, even if she is aware he is not. Her daughter Tess (Geena Davis) has misgivings, but her husband Jon (Tim Robbins) is more encouraging: Marjorie's final years should be comfortable.
Marjorie Prime started life as a play by Jordan Harrison, a Pulitzer-nominated play at that, which indie director Michael Almereyda was sufficiently impressed by to want to make into a film, though if you were unaware of its origins you would probably be able to guess them, for this took place largely in one location, the occasional flashback or cutaway aside. Smith had already starred in the theatre, but here was a chance for movie stars to get their teeth into a juicy role that had that unmistakable flavour of the literary about it, and there was a sense that the dialogue would have landed a shade better in the more focused setting of the auditorium than watching it with movie gloss.
Nevertheless, it was testament to Harrison's ideas about how technology was shaping our memories and relationships that they were able to come across, even in this slightly stilted fashion - stilted by necessity rather than poor handling. Hamm was especially good as what was essentially a computer program, a more compassionate HAL 9000 if you like, who is there to serve his human masters and mistresses but remains short of a wholly convincing human. A nice touch was that the further we went into the story, the various computer-generated replacements grew ever so more believable as actual people, since we had already witnessed what they were like in their real lives as living, breathing souls.
But what of these simulations, were they the equivalent of souls existing after death? Would all those photos and videos that are taken of everyone in the world now, or so it seems, be able to be pieced together and make up a person, so believable that they would be indistinguishable from having the deceased back with you? And if these collections of electronically recorded sounds and images were all that was left, would they be used for company by those you leave behind? Because this science fiction tale looked awfully like it was telling us that old saying, we all die alone, and no matter how carefully we fill up our lives with companionship the fact remains one day they'll be gone, and one day you'll be gone, and all you will have left is those clips and snaps and voice messages.
As you can imagine, with a film this death-obsessed you were not going to be in for a barrel of laughs, and the manner in which it portrayed its characters as living but preoccupied with The Great Beyond to the extent that it stifled their relationships could be frustrating when you may be moved to reach into the screen, give them a shake and call "Carpe diem!" in a Robin Williams inspirational teacher way. Then you recall how Dead Poets Society ended, and how Williams ended his days, and you begin to wonder if they didn't have a point: the further you record your life the more desperate you are to be remembered, and the more you want to be remembered the more you're thinking over what the world will be like without you. It was very well acted across the board, a small cast but Geena Davis brought brittle poignancy to her suspicion of technology, and Tim Robbins an optimism that crumbles once he realises he is simply talking to himself. The final scene had a creepy, Last Year at Marienbad quality that contrived to stick in the mind, aptly enough. Music by Mica Levi.