Marjorie Prime is a wonderful example of a stage-to-screen adaptation. Director Michael Almereyda's screenplay mostly leaves intact the material of Jordan Harrison's 2014 play, a Pulitzer finalist. It largely takes place in a single location, and it leaves alone the distinctively stagey cadences of the dialogue. But it's such a movie. Almereyda's visual treatment of the material is faultless, except insofar as it's maybe a bit too transparently methodical: the film balances shot scales as well as anything I've seen all year (for if anything has been lost to American filmmakers in these later years, surely it has been the ability to keenly manage shot scales?), creating something akin to the movement of poetry in the way it moves into medium two-shots and wide shots from its general baseline of medium close-ups. And then the film occasionally creates interludes during scene transitions, when the camera starts to glide around in relatively elaborate movements, with extremely distinctive, artful compositions. It's not at all unlike the celebrated use of "pillow shots" in Ozu, except that the content is still narratively significant; but the use of strong compositional elements and movement does set these shots out as meaningfully different, and serves neatly the break the film in movements, rhythmically if not necessarily structurally.

This would not be of much more than theoretical interest if the content of Marjorie Prime wasn't worth it; but it absolutely is. The film is a domestic, small-scale science fiction film that uses a made-up technology to examine modern society- the temptation to compare it to Black Mirror is overwhelming, but this sort of idea-driven genre fare is substantially older (and, in fact, is older than the big, elaborate world-building we tend to think of as "science fiction", just not necessarily in cinema). Sometime in the future - around 2050 fits the data best, but it's not clarified - the technology exists to make holographic figures who resemble deceased loved ones, including their voice. However, they're just blank slates until they've been programmed with the appropriate memories and personality traits by having conversations with people who knew the subject in life. So they're kind of like Furbies.*

One of these holograms has lately been given to Marjorie (Lois Smith, who created the role onstage), a woman in her 80s or so - old enough that she's starting to have memory difficulties, though they're not creating major problems just yet. The hologram resembles her husband, Walter (Jon Hamm, as he existed decades ago, relatively young and virile. Marjorie's daughter Tess (Geena Davis) refuses to interact with the simulacrum of her long-dead father, and Tess's husband Jon (Tim Robbins) thus takes on most of the duties of programming Walter Prime. And there's more to it than that, but it's no fun to give away the surprises the film has in store, even though they're not actually that surprising.

The point, anyway, is to lay out several different mini-scenarios which all explicitly ask the question of how these humans, all with different relationships to the sad history of this family, choose to interact with the subjectively constructed avatar of that history. Implicitly, then, the story is a dive into how those of us without holographic relatives do the same work of constructing the story of our memories. Early on, the script drops a reference to the model of memory construction which theorises that we don't possess master memories, like computer files, but remember the last time we remembered the memory. And once you've been primed with that thesis, the rest of the film follows as naturally as could be: this is all about the way that people remember certain things, choose not to remember other things, and attempt to rewrite still other things to make them more palatable (such as Marjorie instructing Walter to deliberately lie about how he proposed when he speaks about it to her later, given that a fancy night out to see Casablanca strikes her as preferable to the true story of a multiplex trip to My Best Friend's Wedding). And it's also about how we think of our lives as directional stories rather than just a whole bunch of events one after the other (in a very small but smart irony, Marjorie Prime, despite being a "story", is really just a bunch of events one after the other, particularly in its second half).

It's basically perfect science fiction: it asks us to do a lot of thinking about abstract things, but it's never obscure or unclear what we're meant to take away, and it's equally pleasurable and rewarding to take it as a "what if?" tale of how future technology might naturally follow from our present, or as a metaphor for the exact way we live right here, right now (and maybe even better than that: while something like Black Mirror always first uses future tech to talk about social media and the internet, Marjorie Prime is examining issues of human cognition that would be much the same regardless of how they're mediated by technology).

It's also a pretty damn great domestic drama: the four core performers are all extraordinarily good, giving restrained performances of people trying to talk around what they're feeling (the smallness and nuance of the acting is another way that the film successfully erases its theatrical roots). It's the kind of quiet acting that makes itself seem invisible, most particularly in Hamm's case, who excels in a role that has to be more difficult than he makes it seem - he's playing a fake personality that isn't always equally convincing, in a non-arbitrary way, but we also first meet Walter Prime much later than the "monotonous robot" stage of his development, so there's none of that easiness here - but I would not care to rank the performances; Smith is a fantastic character actor who rarely has such an extensive showcase role, Robbins hasn't been so free from any trace of kitsch since the 1990s, and Davis basically hasn't even had a film role at all since the '90s.

On top of the human element, the film is an elegant piece of craftsmanship: cinematographer Sean William Price covers much of the film with a faint rosy hue that suggests a foggy nostalgic haze (and no accident that the places where the color palette shifts towards more naturalistic hues is when it concerns more realistic attitudes towards history and memory), and composer Mica Levi continues her uninterrupted streak of writing scores (afterΒ Under the Skin andΒ Jackie) that discomfit any idea of what "film music" consists of, while still feeling absolutely perfect for the film. If Marjorie Prime is all about the dangerous appeal of living in your heavily filtered memories, Levi's music (which is used only very sparingly) is the film's most effective commentary against that kind of romanticism, sweeping across the film in quick bursts of avant-garde noise, like a dreamy version of the synthetic music composed for '50s and '60s sci-fi movies.

All in all, it's quite a memorable, striking mixture of stripped-down stylistic elements and appealingly chewy concepts. It starts to rattle itself apart as the plot starts to fold back and forth on itself in the last 25 minutes or so; intellectually correct, sure, but maybe not so artistically gratifying. Still, as 2017's premier example of the concept-heavy indie sci-fi that has been such a rewarding element of filmmaking in the 2010s, this is worth every minute, even the ones that don't work so much.




*I refuse to apologise for this reference.