Marjorie Prime is a beautiful, touching, heartbreakingly sad film, with the wonderful directing hand of Michael Almereyda guiding it along. It’s a sci-fi film that takes place in the near future. It centers around programmed AIs (Primes) who are able to simulate people derived from the memories of their significant others for whom they provide companionship. This movie is about many things and raises more questions than it answers.
The intertwining themes in Marjorie Prime revolve around technology/AI and our relationship with it, what it means to be human and how human AI can become. It's also a meditation on mortality and aging, death and dying and grief and loss from endings of relationships with loved ones who have died. The most interesting theme though is about the nature of memory and the remembered past which is not the same as the actual past.
The movie begins with a picture of a bright, shimmering and at the same time, blurry sea and quickly delves into the blurry, imperfect memories of a woman, Marjorie, with early stage dementia who is talking with a Prime hologram of her late husband, Walter. He mirrors the stories he has been told/taught by Marjorie and her son-in-law, John, about the person he is based on. He tells her the story of how he proposed to her. She, in response, wants to re-formulate this shared memory of how he actually proposed by substituting the film they were watching “My best Friend’s Wedding” with “Casablanca”: “So by the next time we talk it’ll become true” she says to Walter Prime. “I’ll remember that now” Walter responds. So the past changes and becomes malleable in this way. It is a living breathing thing and not quite in keeping with what actually happened. They are making up Walter’s personality as they go along based on Marjorie’s needs in the present.
“Nobody is who he was, nor will be who he is now” Walter Prime tells John after John has just shared with him the information about the existence and death of Marjorie's son, Damien, who committed suicide and the festival with the saffron flags that Walter and Marjorie apparently go to in their grief after his death. We learn later on that the flags Marjorie remembers were seen by her on the TV. They were not physically there. This line is most suggestive of the theme about the malleability of memory. The film is a meditation on the pliability of memory and it’s relationship to identity and self formation. As we re-consolidate and reconstruct our memories of significant events in our lives we reconstruct our sense of self and our identity. Personality traits and characteristics, the stuff that makes us who we are is not set, solid or consistent over time. It changes depending on our recollections and the contexts of our lives. So much of our idea of who we think we are is based on our memory of certain emotionally salient and traumatic events of our lives but every time we recall any one of these events we change them and fictionalize them more and more until they really lose any sense of an objective veridical truth.
Every time we remember a memory, we don’t remember it as it actually happened, we only remember the last time we remembered it. The very act of remembering changes the memory: a “photocopy of a photocopy” as Tess says. So you reconstruct your past, your memories and sense of self as you go along based on your psychological needs in the present and the current context of your life, away from what actually happened. This is exactly what Marjorie does with her idealized memories of Walter, before they lost their son, a version of Walter devoid of the brokenness and grief that came with that, and what Tess (Marjorie's daughter) does with Marjorie Prime, devoid of the knowledge of the existence let alone death of her son so that she can finally feel like she has her mother’s complete attention. Both of them are trying to have a relationship with their wished for representations and reconstructions under their "omnipotent control."
This is one of those films that disavows the idea of a fixed, immutable, essential self or personality core that is constant across space and time but presents the idea of the self as an illusion of continuity which is more of a Buddhist idea. People only seem predictable and consistent because we see them in situations where their behavior is constrained by the situations of their lives, their roles and relationships. But we are actually constantly changing and turning over. This is why Walter Prime is a puzzle to himself. He is struggling with the questions of who he really is, what his essential personality is, and where it really exists; he twists and turns trying to pin it down and make it stay in one place. In one of the two flashbacks to real life events the real Marjorie asks Walter how he can be sure that the things will turn out the way he predicts. How can he be so sure about himself? How can he be so sure the both of them won’t change? And of course he can’t be sure because we change in innumerable ways through our lives; our bodies, memories, brain architecture, even our DNA doesn’t stay constant. So of course both Marjorie and Walter can and do change; they are irreversibly changed by the death of their son. And Walter Prime changes every time he learns something new about the real Walter.
Marjorie wants to remember Walter not as he really was towards the end of his life, a broken man, but the way he used to be in her idealized memories of him: as young, handsome, the man she fell in love with, before “everything happened” and their son committed suicide. This fact apparently broke the real Walter and left him “disconnected and detached.” "He had checked out a long time before he died” John later tells Walter Prime. Marjorie has also apparently suppressed the death of her son and would rather live in a time where that hasn’t happened. “You’re a good Walter” she tells him repeatedly for not testing her reality and going along with her re-formulated recollections.
We can think of this relationship between Marjorie and Walter Prime as “retreat into fantasy” a defense against grief and loss: “You live in a fairy tale.” Tess tells the real Marjorie. But is it actually a protective, adaptive coping mechanism in response not only to the loss of her husband but also as a way of coping with her aging and slowly losing her cognitive and physical faculties, her ability to play the violin, and ‘feeling useless.’ Tess finds the relationship “grotesque” and willfully refuses to see how beneficial Marjorie’s relationship with Walter Prime is: he is the only reason she eats and ostensibly lives much longer than she would have without him. Tess who has a very ambivalent attachment with her mother is angry with Marjorie ostensibly for living in a fairy tale and reading the Bible. Of course, later Tess decides to indulge in a fantasy of her own by forming a relationship with an older version of her mother, a Marjorie Prime who has no memory of the death of her son, presumably as a way of repairing her own hurt and pain from the deficits in the real relationship with her mother. “Why do you think this is the Marjorie for me?” she asks her mother’s Prime. We are told that after Damien dies Marjorie never mentions his name in 50 years. Yet his presence in the form of his absence looms large over Tess’s relationship with her mother. Tess feels unloved, rejected, “forgotten” because her mother is too distracted by her unprocessed grief about her son. She is understandably angry with her mother for choosing to pick a version of Walter from a time in her life when she (Tess) wasn’t even alive which makes her feel even more unwanted. Tess has hopes of forming a reparative relationship with a fantasied/wished for mother in whose presence she can feel an unalloyed love, a love untainted by depression and grief and loss that she was not able to feel in her real relationship with Marjorie.
The last theme in the movie is about the nature of AI/Primes; what do we make of it? How human are the Primes? Can they really feel concern, pity, curiosity; are they really able to mentalize their interlocutors and the personas they are based on? It seems so. Mentalization can best be defined as “the ability to hold heart and mind in heart and mind.” Based on our adult mind, we might think that we first become aware of our own mind, and then we come to realize that other people are similar—they also have a mind like ours. This incorrect intuition about development is based on our experience of empathizing with others: we actively imagine ourselves in their shoes.
But developmental research shows that we learn about our own mind from the outside in, that is, it is through the mind of another person—ideally a secure attachment figure—that we become fully aware of our own mental states. This is how a child and the Primes become more human as they see themselves reflected in the eyes of a loving other.
Is Walter Prime any less “real” than the actual Walter? It seems not. Their mission is to “become more human” and to be human means to be unpredictable and to grow, because change is the only constant in life. Marjorie’s Prime helps Tess mentalize herself and her mother to become more human. There is something simultaneously absurd and heartbreaking about the three Primes sitting in a room with an infinite amount of time on their hands trying to constantly refine and hone their skills for becoming “more human” while the human interlocutors on whom they are based and for who they were created are no more. Perhaps that will be humantiy's ultimate fate.