In the year 2050, a woman (Lois Smith) sits in the living room of her beautiful house. Through the windows, we can see that she has a view of an even more beautiful beach. In fact, the beach is nearly too pristine. So is the house. Somehow, everything about the location feels both inviting and fake at the same time. We find ourselves wondering what could possibly be lurking underneath the surface.
The woman is 85 years old. Her name is Marjorie. She’s talking to a very handsome and charming man named Walter (Jon Hamm). As they talk, it becomes obvious that Walter and Marjorie are married. Walter mentions that he proposed to her after they saw the movie My Best Friend’s Wedding. Marjorie doesn’t remember ever seeing a movie by that name and when Walter explains the plot to her, Marjorie simply smiles and nods along. Afterwards, she says that she wishes they had gotten married after seeing Casablanca. She wants a better memory than the one they have.
We can’t help but notice that Walter appears to be quite a bit younger than Marjorie, despite Marjorie saying that Walter was considerably older than her when they first got married. This is because the Walter to whom she is speaking is not the real Walter. The real Walter died years ago. Walter Prime is a hologram, a computer program designed to give Marjorie someone to speak to. Marjorie is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. When she first got Walter Prime, she specifically decided that she wanted to spend her days with the young Walter, as opposed to the old man that he became. Sometimes, she knows that Walter is just a program and other times, she thinks that he’s real.
Living with Marjorie is her daughter, Tess (Geena Davis) and Tess’s husband, Jon (Tim Robbins). Tess finds the hologram of her father to be somewhat creepy and she wonders why her mother treats the hologram better than she treats her own daughter. Jon, on the other hand, feels that the hologram is just what Marjorie needs.
Time passes. Marjorie grows closer to the hologram while Tess grows angrier and angrier over her mother’s condition. When Tess discovers that Marjorie has been reading a bible, she has a meltdown because her mother has apparently forgotten that she was always a militant atheist. Jon tries to keep everyone calm. Is Jon trying to the inevitable better for everyone or is he just trying to distract himself from the pain that’s all around him?
The hologram and Jon have a meeting. The hologram says that, even though Jon and Tess have programmed him to act, think, and talk just like the original Walter, there are still things that he hasn’t been properly programmed for. While filling Walter Prime in on some more of Marjorie and Walter’s past, Jon reveals the family tragedy that has haunted the family for years….
Marjorie Prime is not a particularly happy movie. It takes place over the course of several decades and we follow Marjorie, Jon, Tess, and Walter through a great deal of changes. The only thing the remains consistent is that everyone is eventually left with only half-remembered fragments of their past. Some of those fragments are happy and others are full of regret. Everyone ages except for the holograms but, as becomes apparent in one particularly heart-breaking scene, a hologram is only as good as the person programming it. A hologram can be programmed to superficially act like someone but it can never actually be that person. As much as Jon, Tess, and Marjorie attempt to recreate the past, it can’t be done because the past can never truly be relived.
Marjorie Prime is science fiction without CGI. It’s a film that’s designed to make you think and it succeeds. It would also probably be unbearably depressing if not for the skills of the cast. Lois Smith is heart-breaking and sympathetic as Marjorie while Jon Hamm does a good job of showing why Walter Prime would be so attractive in theory and so frustrating in reality. (Walter Prime can be programmed to act like he cares but he can’t truly do it.) Geena Davis gives an intelligent and thoughtful performance as Tess, capturing both her anger and regret and the film even makes good use of Tim Robbins’s tendency towards to smarminess.
Marjorie Prime, which was acclaimed when it premiered at Sundance in 2017, is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.