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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives on the West End with his lovely wife Emily, where they watch all the movies ever made. When not digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: September 19, 2017

Sci-fi head-scratcher ‘Marjorie Prime’ is worth your time

Written by: Dennis Perkins
Jon Hamm plays Walter Prime, the holographic representation of the late husband of Marjorie, right, played by Lois Smith, in "Marjorie Prime." Photos courtesy of FilmRise

Jon Hamm plays Walter Prime, the holographic representation of the late husband of Marjorie, right, played by Lois Smith, in “Marjorie Prime.” Photos courtesy of FilmRise

“Marjorie Prime,” the new movie from director Michael Almereyda showing this weekend at PMA Films, plays like an especially affecting episode of the BBC series “Black Mirror.” Apart from the fact that “Marjorie Prime” co-star Jon Hamm also starred in one of that exceptionally unnerving show’s best episodes, Almereyda’s film similarly explores how humanity’s increasing and accelerating reliance on technology affects how we live and who we are. Also like “Black Mirror,” “Marjorie Prime” is prime science fiction, a deeply human and imaginative speculation on how the technology that’s only becoming more and more integrated into our existence will affect — or even supplant — how we relate to each other.

Geena Davis plays Tess, the daughter of the title character in "Marjorie Prime."

Geena Davis plays Tess, the daughter of the title character in “Marjorie Prime.”

In content, “Marjorie Prime,” which Almereyda adapted from the Pulitzer prize-nominated play by Jordan Harrison, is a sci-fi film in the manner of the movies of fellow indie critical favorite Shane Carruth, whose truly admirable low-budget films “Primer” and “Upstream Color” ground their fantastical premises in such deceptive depth of feeling as to seem like an entirely new genre of film. On the surface, “Marjorie Prime” might appear less of a narrative mind-bender than Carruth’s infamously complex conceits. But there are hints along the way — culminating in a final scene that suggests worlds of possibilities — that the seemingly cozy premise of the film is layered with some of the essential questions from which the finest sci-fi is made.

Watch the trailer:

That premise is simple. It’s the near future, and the film follows an elderly widow named Marjorie (old pro Lois Smith, outstanding in the role she first played on stage) whose adult daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and solicitous son-in-law John (Tim Robbins) have installed a “prime,” a customizable holographic representation of a deceased loved one. Able to assume whatever shape the user wishes and able to learn, from interaction with the user, to better and better impersonate the long-lost love, the prime is intended to provide comfort and companionship.

Jon Hamm plays a "prime," the holographic representation of a deceased love one.

Jon Hamm plays a “prime,” the holographic representation of a deceased love one.

Marjorie chooses her late husband, Walter, who, since Marjorie is allowed to choose her prime’s age and appearance, takes the form of the stunningly handsome, 40ish Walter. Played by Hamm, Walter Prime is the first role to truly take advantage of the “Mad Men” actor’s unique qualities on the big screen. As good as Hamm is, there’s always a certain remove to his screen persona, a trait that makes Walter’s solicitous, diligent inhumanity as unnerving here as Walter is unfailingly attentive. Meanwhile, Tess finds herself, as she has her whole life, managing her own complicated feelings about her fraught relationship with her fading mother, even as Marjorie listens and re-listens to her own life story from the not-quite-human lips of Tess’ father. A man who, thanks to her mother’s choice, is younger than Tess is now.

A story like this is a classic sci-fi setup, one that can spin off in suitably infinite directions. Science fiction stories about humans creating artificial life, however, generally stall out in one of a very finite number of clichéd scenarios (with “kill all the humans” the go-to scenario). “Marjorie Prime” doesn’t go in a predictable direction, although its convention-defying turns are less twists than they are thoughtful meditations on the nature of grief and memory. Almereyda’s script and Harrison’s play are so deeply rooted in these universal experiences that the story’s developments (about which I will remain cagy) emerge with a somber inevitability that yet have the power to register with something like shock and loss themselves.

The performances are an equal reason why “Marjorie Prime” lands with such aching immediacy. The four leads are all operating from different places at the outset, a fact that only becomes more pronounced — and evocatively muddied — as the film goes on. Hamm makes Walter Prime into one of the most profoundly fascinating such beings in the annals of sci-fi, a performance more affecting for how restrained it must remain. Davis and Robbins make their loving but troubled long-married couple the soul of helplessness in the face of aging and the crushing pressures of loss and disappointment. It’s the best role either of them has had in decades. And Smith is a wonder, a stubbornly human woman whose incrementally accelerating enfeeblement never obscures the accomplished, difficult, complicated person we sense she always was. If any of the four snag Oscar nominations, it won’t be a surprise.

What “Marjorie Prime” gets so right about its heady material is how every speculation on how the main characters use the film’s “prime” technology feels not only right, but inevitable. Science fiction takes our fears of the future and transforms them into tangible external threats. But while there are the merest hints here that we’re not as in control of the things we create as we imagine we are (a particular choice of song at one point is awesomely evocative in retrospect), Almereyda leaves us, in the film’s haunting final scene, ruminating on just what unexpected new forms our grief and pain will ultimately create.

“Marjorie Prime” is playing at PMA Films at 2 and 6:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $8, $6 for Portland Museum of Art members and students with valid ID. Starring Lois Smith, Jon Hamm, Geena Davis and Tim Robbins, the film runs 98 minutes and, while not rated, would probably come in at a PG-13. It’s highly recommended.


COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS

STONINGTON OPERA HOUSE
Thursday: “J. Fred Woell: An American Vision.” Maine filmmaker Richard Kane brings us another of his intimate portraits of important Maine artists with his new documentary about the late Woell, a found-object metalsmith and jewelry maker whose surprisingly political ideas about his work elevated him to international acclaim.

SPACE GALLERY
Tuesday, Sept. 26: “The Ornithologist.” The lonely, bookish bird expert of the title of this compellingly weird indie is studying storks on an isolated Portuguese river when a freak storm sweeps him away to some increasingly strange, alternately sexy and terrifying encounters.

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