My research focuses on technologies that bring digital projections of dead people “to life,” in a sense (or several). Part of my historical work tracks particular reasons the word “hologram” has been so easily applied to resurrected performances of, for example, Tupac and Michael Jackson, despite these presentations and their apparatuses having nearly nothing in common with actual holography. That is, they are not precisely related technically. The spectral imagery produced by both, however — the life-sized human bodies and parts of bodies that are there but not there — are part of a lengthy project in certain corners of human culture. Holograms and “holograms,” as well as the Pepper’s ghost stage illusion, certain representational concepts on either side of Renaissance art, on back to occasional practices at the Delphic oracle — these are technical presentations that both reckon with the dead and create a media effect I call “holopresence.”
So the new film Marjorie Prime — a chamber drama about four characters swapping their mortal bodies for posthumous digital “holograms” — was, you might imagine, a must-see.
(Spoilers to follow)
Walter (Jon Hamm) is dead, though the film wisely takes its sweet time revealing this. He sits in the living room, his spine ramrod straight despite the comfy-looking couch. He converses with Marjorie (Lois Smith), and he's alert but largely emotionless a la Brent Spiner’s portrayals of the Star Trek android Data. (It’s fascinating at this moment in cultural history to watch human actors struggle to dial down natural human responses in order to portray artificial intelligences, even as the creators of digital resurrections struggle to ramp up those same embodied cues in order to facilitate suspension of disbelief in their agents’ humanity.) We learn that Walter is a digital projection through the long arc of this initial conversation, long before the technical effect is visualized. Marjorie possesses this interactive artificial intelligence as a kind of keepsake, a memory aid as her dementia progresses. Holo-Walter is a very fancy family photo, one that learns from others about how to present his human antecedent. That’s the key, of course — our memory of someone isn’t ours alone. It’s distributed, in pieces. It takes a village to raise the dead, as it were. Each family member has their particular take on who Walter was, which the AI learns via interaction and thus refines who holo-Walter is. The resulting presentation, however, is a collage and essentially a new person. The film progresses toward a larger assemblage — a 21st-century glass menagerie of posthumous holograms collected by Marjorie’s son-in-law, Jon (Tim Robbins) — which attempts to interact with itself.
Just as I use digital “holograms” to initiate discussions about how we use technology to negotiate mortality, Marjorie Prime uses the technical concept to explore memory, identity, time, and (I think, via the stunning final scene) boredom. My inquiries have less to do with long-term questions related to AIs among us and more to do with the history of how we make sense of human bodies that are there but not there. What’s the history of the phenomenology in these encounters? How have humans made sense of spectral bodies and devised practices for interacting with them? What existing stores of human experience remain useful when engaging in this communication model, and what new tactics might we want to apply?
Marjorie Prime asks some of these same questions. Like most recently staged digital performances — and quite similar to the design goals of much of the “holographic” augmented-reality tech poised to rush the consumer computing market — the holograms of Marjorie Prime are presented in such a manner so as to veil their digital origins. Half the challenge of the film is figuring out when one of the four main characters has died and is (narratively) now a hologram. This is partly due to staging that didn’t translate well from the story’s origin as a 2014 play, but it’s entirely indicative of the illusion that AR technology strives to achieve in order for its displays to not be displays but to be things, objects, and people. It’s challenging in my writing to choose between the words “representation” and “presentation” because regardless of how much a digital hologram simply is a visual representation of something or someone, the design goal of its presentation is just that: to remove the prefix. To exist, not only to index. To achieve interpersonal communication within a highly mediated context, the mediation must be blurred, if not hidden completely. In the cases of life-sized, three-dimensional holograms of people (living or dead), the most successful tech remediates embodiment.
Actually, it may do more. Only twice in Marjorie Prime do we actually see Walter as a hologram effect. Late in that initial conversation with Marjorie, once the audience is finally questioning his ontology, director Michael Almereyda throws out an epistemological crumb: Marjorie, moving from one side of the living room to another, walks through Walter’s seated legs. Later, wrestling with the emotional consequences of continuing to interact with someone he had issues with in "real" life, Jon throws his drink at Walter, which of course sails through Walter’s head and smashes against the opposite wall. But that's it. All other knowledge gained about the systems behind Walter (and eventually behind other posthumous characters, too), comes from dialogue, which itself barely contains the word “hologram.” In so doing, one of the discourses common to reviews of the film is a similarly there-not there claim about Marjorie Prime’s genre classification. The reviewer at RogerEbert.com says the film is “singular in being the science-fiction movie that feels the least like a sci-fi movie.” Vulture’s critic says “it’s sci-fi in the service of exploring our inner lives.” That is, we’re used to defining sci-fi texts as those that foreground the tech — how it looks, how it works, how it was made, how awesome it is, how spectacular its effects, etc. Whole organizations exist in Hollywood to assist in aligning moviemakers with technical science in order to make the techno-wizardry plausible within the narratives. But in attempting to chronicle this emerging form of reality-augmenting systems, even the stories we’re telling about them — including like-minded movies such as Her and Ex-Machina — seem to mimic the very efforts designed into AR to hide its mediation. It’s beyond remediating: it’s demediating.
Marjorie Prime is theoretically rich for discussions such as these, though I can’t recommend it as a great movie. It’s an hour and a half, but it feels much longer. The pacing problem mentioned earlier contributes to this, as do the elliptically drawn characters. A comparative film that's better entertainment — but with maybe less to say about similar topics of end-of-life technologies and especially about memory — is 2012’s Robot and Frank (which features Robbins’ ex-wife, Susan Sarandon). The title characters there are significantly more engaging within their narrative. Of course, there’s much to explore in that very claim. The idea that the robot, which looks less like a human, is easier to relate to than a completely photo-realistic Jon Hamm finds us back in the uncanny valley.
I’m always climbing out of there.
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I'm THOMAS CONNER, Ph.D. in Communication (Science Studies) and culture journalist.