After I finished watching Marjorie Prime, I was immediately reminded of a quote that sat on the desk of Michael Keaton’s character from Alejandro Innaritu’s Birdman. The quote was something along the lines of “a thing is more than what people say about that thing.” In the context of Birdman, that quote was really a pick-me-up for Keaton’s character, whom had become something of a joke in his later acting career, never quite achieving the same success when he was a superhero movie star decades earlier.
That quote very much applies to Marjorie Prime but in a far different capacity than it did in Birdman. In Marjorie Prime, Marjorie (played by Lois Smith) is comforted in her final days by an artificial projection of her husband Walter (Jon Hamm). Walter has long been deceased, and the artificial version of him is actually him in his forties, far from the age he was when he died. But this is the version of Walter that is most comforting for Marjorie to remember. To make him seem more lifelike, Marjorie tells him about who he was as a person, what their relationship was like and shares enough intimate memories to the point where he can communicate nearly as well as the actual Walter did.
But the projection is never quite there. As close as it is to being him, it never really is him, and the memories that serve as the backbone of his data and internal system can be easily compromised. It is never truly him because it’s relying on what other people say about him, without any input from the man he’s projecting himself. It’s a fascinating, tragic and endlessly thought-provoking concept that propels this film to greatness, one that leaves you somberly scratching your head in an existential angst long after you leave the theater. It makes you wonder if you meticulously recorded every thought, feeling and experience you ever had from birth through death in a million-page-long diary in an effort to capture the true essence of you once you left the earth, that ultimately that effort would prove futile because it would be the person reading that diary who had final say on what they should interpret from the words you so painstakingly wrote down. It also makes you question if you actually read an early passage of that diary years after you wrote it, would you truly be remembering the thought or feeling the passage described? Or would you just be remembering what you think the passage is describing?
It’s heavy stuff, and the movie moves quite slow so sometimes that stuff falls through the cracks and its impact is less profound. But if there’s one thing that’s just as resonant in Marjorie Prime as that dreaded conundrum of no one ever knowing the “real” you, it’s the wonderful fact that we can love another person so passionately and endlessly that the notion of them no longer being with us is just too difficult to bear. That even after a person dies, we never truly move on, latching onto whatever fading memories that we have with that person in an effort to keep them alive, one way or another. The projection of Marjorie’s husband is intended to serve as company to her in old age, essentially someone to talk to and make her feel less lonely. But as we learn throughout the film, that projection is really just a high-tech effort to keep that person alive, or to make us feel as if they are alive. Those aren’t the same things, but we like to think that they are.
Watching Marjorie Prime takes a great deal of patience. There were at least two points that I thought the movie was over and honestly was relieved, as sitting in a theater watching a movie where people are sitting most of the time can become quite tiresome. But taking in the whole of this movie and letting it sit with you is a powerful and unforgettable experience. It’s the type of movie you want to watch alone just to be able to sit and think to yourself undisturbed in solitude about what you just took in. And even after you leave the theater and get home, you’ll be thinking about it for days after it ended.