The Computers Carry On, Uncaring, Unknowing, Machine-like…

MARJORIE PRIME (12A) US 2017 97mins. Written & directed by Michael Almereyda; with Jon Hamm, Lois Smith, Tim Robbins, and Geena Davis.

Film is a medium where computers are playing an ever increasing part; computer generated this and that, effects, characters, scenes, sound effects, Toy Story, various superhero franchises etc. etc.

Marjorie Prime, conversely, is a film wherein some of the characters are actually computers, not simply generated by them to be presented as more or less conventional (if sometimes cartoon) people. The computers, here, are played by conventional actors, more or less conventionally. John Hamm brings his slightly off-kilter, ‘I’m not exactly sure what’s happening but I’m going with it because it might lead to something interesting,’ slightly out of place kind of charm to playing a computer generated projection, a consoling, if slightly confused, presence for the behoof of a grandmother, offering to her a walk-through (though not see-through) version of her dead husband’s younger self, the self he was when they first got together and were watching ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’ in bed and all was before them. Time has caught up with the widow, but it seems she has unresolved issues with her husband that was, now that things have progressed to the fairly near (to us that is) future.

Marjorie, the grandmother, in the way of things, becomes another computer projection, this time for the benefit of her daughter, once she (Marjorie) has shuffled off the mortal coil, and her daughter, in her turn, can explore issues unresolved.

The word ‘prime’ seems to suggest something like priming a pump, in that you introduce a small amount of liquid to get things started and then the whole process flows along nicely on its own.

The computer isn’t exactly the person being represented (of course not, it’s a computer) but as a computer it is very receptive to memory input, as you would assume of a person who has returned from the dead, and the pump-priming can be done by almost anyone. Or at least is done in this instance by the son-in-law, husband, father etc. Once primed the computer can have (quite lengthy) conversations, often about the past, and it is as a kind of memory bank or sink for the ‘consolee’, as an interlocutor for the raking over of old times, that is where the consolation seems to lie.

So, a film in which a number of characters are computers; we’ve been there before: 2001, A Space Odyssey for example, Spike Jonze Her perhaps. But those computers came with a generous helping of anthropomorphism; they were like people, and the other characters could interact with them as though they were people.

These prime computers behave like computers. They are reductive. In fact the whole film is reductive, in a good way, I think. There doesn’t seem to be anything you could call conflict, for example. That’s been redacted out. But underneath all the computer consolation, there is tragedy, the kind of tragedy that results from extreme conflict, repressed, hidden, the result of something off camera, out of frame, something that computers really don’t understand.

The computers are excellent at memory, at imbibing, storing and regurgitating, but not good at any kind of judgement or fastidiousness as to accuracy. Sound familiar? They are more than happy with whatever makes you happy. But they look right, that’s the thing, and behind the scenes they are being fed stuff, could be true, could be false, by your husband, son-in-law, etc who, let’s face it, may not have your best interests at heart. Sounding more familiar?

Thus the question: computers as characters that don’t look like people, but look like computers, or people who look like people but are actually computers; which is the more confusing? Which the more difficult to assimilate, to respond honestly too?

A computer is a very poor metaphor for a person. No matter how much we may be encouraged to call Artificial Intelligence, intelligence, it is nothing of the sort. A computer is a machine.

And this film, on the surface, a calm, quiet, ostensibly sympathetic portrait of a family with all the normal family issues, is really a very clever, very devastating satire on the idea of speaking to computers, indeed treating computers, as though they were people.

In fact, the characters seem to prefer not to speak to each other. The daughter of the house doesn’t speak to her mother. This mother prefers to speak to her own mother’s carer, rather than speak directly to her mother. I could go on.

The reductive character of computers tend toward isolation. And isolation tends to despair. And despair can lead to all sorts of very bad outcomes. But the computers carry on, uncaring, unknowing, machine-like.

This is a very surprising film, which eschews all but the simplest of computer generated effects, to create a result which is deeply unsettling but with a message that seems ever more urgent.

Paul Corcoran