“I’ll be right here, Marjorie, whenever you need me,” Walter says to his elderly wife in the sci-fi mystery movie Marjorie Prime, which is out in cinemas today. “I have all the time in the world.”
Walter isn’t going anywhere. In fact, he’s already been dead for 15 years.
Played by Jon Hamm, this post-death Walter is a holographic representation of Marjorie’s husband 30 years prior. It is Walter’s “Prime”: a holographic mimic of Walter’s appearance, voice, and personality programmed from his past that also regularly evolves as it learns new information about its present. He’s not the work of a mad inventor but merely a product that Marjorie, played by Lois Smith, may order off of Amazon as a source of comfort after a loved one has passed.
Marjorie Prime uses emerging technology as a window into our desire to self-select the past. Directed and co-written by Michael Almereyda and based on a play by Jordan Harrison, the movie’s focus is on a timeless question that has gnawed at us for generations: What does it mean to be human? Walter’s Prime may be a version of a hologram, but it acts more like a mirror, reflecting Marjorie’s life back at her. He sits on the couch with her, providing support and a trip down memory lane for his ailing wife, whose own memory is quickly fading. Walter’s Prime isn’t really about extending Walter’s life after his death—it’s a vehicle to provide insight for Marjorie’s.
In a conversation about how our memories are not always accurate representations of the past, Marjorie’s daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins) name-check 19th-century philosopher and psychologist William James, who was noted for his work regarding memory. Memory, Tess and Jon discuss, is not a well—or a Google search—that pulls from a database of past events. Instead, we are remembering a memory, not the event itself. The process of aging and memory is akin to making a photocopy of a photocopy, with memories of the past fast becoming distortions of the underlying truth. Our remembered past is not factual, but something we create. While the humans in Marjorie Prime are seeing their memories fade, the non-human Primes are seeing theirs advance with every new data point.
William James was also noted for his theory of self, which divided the “Me” (which he defined as the ”empirical me”) and the “I” (which is your “pure ego”). Marjorie Prime teases out this separation of self for much of the film. A Prime may appear real (the Me), but it lacks any soul or meaningful consciousness (the I). The quality that a Prime lacks—to feel emotion as opposed to merely emote—highlights the very quality that make us human. A Prime can express love, but that is different from the ability to feel a deep sense of love for another person. The loss that Marjorie has suffered is a gaping wound in her soul; for Walter Prime, the loss is merely a factoid for the algorithm.
The movie is set in the not-so-distant future, stripped of the typical gratuitous shots of fanciful technology found in a sci-fi flick. The post-death communication it proposes is not some far-fetched vision of the future. In fact, it’s already here. The company Eternime creates intelligent avatars based on curated thoughts, stories, and memories that others can interact with after your death. The concept of hologram appearances from beyond the grave became a reality with Tupac’s (Tupac Prime?) posthumous appearance at Coachella in 2012. And as far as using the non-living for companionship, the PARO robotic seal, and other companion robots, are being utilized to comfort the elderly. While chatting with the deceased may be comforting to some, its long-term impact on bereavement is something society will soon have to consider.
For actor Jon Hamm, this is the not the first foray into the moral quandaries of emerging technology. In 2014, Hamm appeared in the Black Mirror episode “White Christmas,” which was about technology run amok. The influential British show has also featured an episode (“Be Right Back”) about a grieving widow who brings back an AI version of her deceased husband, similarly to what we see in Marjorie Prime. Hamm was further associated with advancing tech when he appeared as “HoloHamm,” an augmented-reality experience unveiled at Sundance to build buzz for Marjorie Prime. HoloHamm could interact with viewers through their smartphone, speaking in pre-recorded phrases. You can also add Hamm’s Walter Prime character under the Holo augmented reality app, placing him anywhere you would like when looking through your smartphone.
Marjorie Prime is a compelling and important film that challenges our binary understanding of human vs. machine. It is not an either/or proposition, but instead a continuum of humanness. Humans, for example, have the ability to form close bonds and love each other, but they often act with a machine-like coldness and indifference. And although artificial, Primes have the ability to be thoughtful companions. In this way, Marjorie Prime is not really a movie about holograms appearing human—it’s about humans questioning and searching for their own humanness.