Film & Television

Contemplating the Afterlife in a Digital World

In 2004, when Mark Zuckerberg launched “The Facebook,” he was just a college sophomore. So, it’s no surprise really that it never occurred to him that his site would eventually have to deal with the mortalilty of its users. I myself joined Facebook in 2008 in order to reconnect with some classmates. For better or worse, I now have 549 friends. Six of them are dead.

It’s a haunting fact of life (and death) in today’s world: our digital lives outlive us. So, each year Facebook prompts me to send a “Happy Birthday” message to Maureen or Betsy or Tony or Leslie or Greg or Mary. Sometimes it’s a nice reminder of a person who was once in my life. Other times it simply makes me sad. Meanwhile, each deceased person’s profile remains, and in some cases friends post new, often heartbreaking messages to them. “Miss you, Mom.” “Till we meet again, Dad.” “Feeling the space you left behind.” As strange as it seemed at first, their continued presence now feels normal. Most people seem to agree that reconnecting with someone you’ve lost through social media helps with the grieving process.

The concept of computer-assisted comfort plays a central role in one of this year’s most intensely moving films, Marjorie Prime. Set in the not-too-distant future, the movie leverages plausible computer technology to explore the very human nature of life, death, family and memory.

Marjorie is an older woman, suffering from arthritis and dementia. She lives in a well-appointed beach house with her grown daughter Tess and Tess’s husband Jon. But, she spends most of her time reminiscing with her husband Walter. Walter is considerably younger than Marjorie. He reminds her to eat when she forgets. He tells her stories about their two dogs. He replays the evening he proposed. Walter is handsome and thoughtful and considerate. Walter is also dead.

In the analog world, Marjorie has been a widow for fifteen years. To help her cope with her failing mental and physical health, the family has acquired a “prime.” In essence, Walter is a computer program. He’s a holographic image, an avatar, of the real Walter years before his death. He looks the way Marjorie remembers or wants to remember him. He collects data as they interact, becoming more human and more genuinely Walter each time. When he makes a mistake and Marjorie corrects him, he registers the new information and assures her, “I’ll remember that next time.”

Tess, who has a strained relationship with her mother, resents the affection Marjorie seems to have for Walter. Jon, who appears easy-going (but self-medicates with endless glasses of scotch), is more accepting, and appreciates the prime’s therapeutic value. As the prime learns how to be Walter, secrets are uncovered and a dark family history is remembered and rewritten. Essential questions surface. What is reality; what is memory; and if we are at peace when the two don’t align, isn’t that all right?

Marjorie Prime is written and directed by Michael Almereyda, known for 2000’s sleek modernist Hamlet with Ethan Hawke and 2015’s The Experimenter. It’s based on the Pulitzer Prize-nominated play of the same title by Jordan Harrison. Lois Smith, who stars in the movie, played Marjorie in both the Los Angeles and New York stage productions. And, she is simply marvelous.

At 86, Smith is the same age as her character. She studied with the legendary Lee Strasbourg at The Actors’ Studio and has worked consistently on stage and screen since her early twenties. As Marjorie, she delivers an Oscar-worthy performance, seamlessly transitioning from confusion to a quiet delight as she and Walter weave the past back together.

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