‘Marjorie Prime’ Offers an Optimistic View of the Digital Afterlife

At the NYC premiere, the cast and director opened up about the film’s stance on technology’s role in our lives.

Aug 21 2017, 7:55pm

Jon Hamm as the Walter prime Image: BB Film Productions

After I published a rant on how voicemail is an undated and unnecessary technology, I got some surprising feedback. Multiple readers told me that they saved voicemails from loved ones who had died, and that it was a great sense of comfort. It's a sweet, sad reminder of how technology, at its core, is still about connecting people to one another.

That connection is a major theme in Marjorie Prime, the new arthouse flick from filmmaker Michael Almereyda (whose filmography includes the Ethan Hawke version of Hamlet). The movie, set sometime in the near future, tells the story of Marjorie, an aging widow struggling with dementia. In this future world, people are able to purchase "primes," which are computer programs that create an interactive, lifelike hologram of anybody the user chooses. Marjorie chooses her prime to take on the persona of a younger version of her late husband, Walter, who died 15 years earlier. The more the user interacts with the prime and talks about its human counterpart, the more humanlike the prime becomes.

At a New York screening of the movie Friday, Almereyda said he thinks the story—an adaptation of a play by Pulitzer-winning playwright Jordan Harrison—conveys "a sense of awe" about artificial intelligence's expanding role in our lives.

"I don't think it's a pessimistic concept," Almereyda told me. "To be human is to recognize death on some level—to face it or to hide from it. But I think there's a sense of awe in what Jordan wrote and what I tried to convey in the movie and that's very different than tragedy or pessimism."

The futurism and technology quickly fade into the background in this film. From the first scene it's clear what the prime is and how it functions. The viewer is very quickly able to accept the movie's reality and focus on the story, which is really about memory, relationships, and loss. It's a more subtle followup to recent explorations of AI such as 2013's Her, 2015's Ex Machina, and, like, half the episodes of Black Mirror.

While grappling with her own unreliable memory, Marjorie tries to educate her prime on the man her husband was, their shared life, and treasured memories. But she, along with her daughter and son-in-law who live with her, struggles to decide how much of their family history to share with the prime. More details will make the prime more lifelike, but not all memories are happy.

Read more: 'Ex Machina' Director Alex Garland: Humans Are Scarier than AI

Lately, there's been a lot of hand-wringing over AI becoming too powerful, both in fiction and media. Elon Musk has called AI an "existential threat to humanity." While it's important to think critically about how emerging technologies might impact our lives, it's also refreshing that Marjorie Prime offers a view that's aware of those dystopian narratives, but also presents a more optimistic side. Technology can be helpful, it can be a means for facilitating our ability to reflect on humanity and connect with others.

"The movie sneaks up on you in a very effective way," Jon Hamm, who plays the role of the Walter prime, said at the premiere. "It's quiet, like Michael is, and yet very deep, like Michael is."

Though the movie itself can be a bit pretentious at times and is a little heavy on the arthouse clichés (oceanscapes with string music, anyone?), the weaving of a less pessimistic, less aggressive vision of technology with a very human-centric story is a nice detour from some of the more menacing depictions we've had recently. Perhaps technology doesn't have to be as threatening as we so often assume it is. Perhaps, like those preserved voicemails that keep people feeling connected, technology can help us feel more human.

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.