When Artificial Intelligence Meets a Failing Mind
Sci-fi drama Marjorie Prime questions human identity
Every time Marjorie recounts a story to her husband Walter, his refrain isn't, "I remember that now." Instead it's, "I'll remember that now." That shift from present to future tense is pivotal because he cannot recall those moments from their marriage – flags in the park, the death of their son, what bad film was playing when he proposed – because he was never there. Walter is not Walter. Walter is Walter Prime, a sophisticated AI serving as Marjorie's companion. The real Walter (Jon Hamm) has been dead for decades, while 86-year-old Marjorie (Five Easy Pieces' Lois Smith) is going senile. When she tells Walter a story, it is what she thinks is the truth. When he recounts it to her as her memory decays, then it is like the first time she has heard it.
2017's Marjorie Prime reboots this week at the AFS Cinema as part of Science on Screen, bringing researchers and movies together for a post-screening discussion of how technology responds to our reality. This time, it's two scientists from IBM's Austin research lab: AI designer Adam Cutler, an expert in artificial intelligence, and Master Inventor Susann Keohane, whose specialty is the use of technology and aging – two key issues at the center of this near-future domestic drama.
Smith originated the part of Marjorie (a beautiful contradiction for a story that depends on interchangeability) when Marjorie Prime debuted onstage in Los Angeles in 2013, and returns as the fading widow. Marjorie's son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins) believes that even the illusion of her deceased husband – a specter of him from his youth – will help her (a position with which his wife, Tess, a technophobe as played by Geena Davis, profoundly disagrees). But is this Walter really Walter, or just an illusion recounting stories? Does having Walter's "memories" make him Walter? If so, what does that mean for Marjorie, whose own sense of self-identity is fading with her mind?
Jordan Harrison's original Pulitzer-nominated play (adapted here by writer/director Michael Almereyda) tackled the inherent mystery of artificial intelligence designed to emulate the human mind: How can we replicate what we scarcely understand ourselves? Almereyda concentrates on the theme of memory as reconstruction, rather than data storage, and history as a communal act created by consensus. Nothing is immutable, not even the environment: The outdoors is shown either in the perpetually shifting form of the ocean, or in an artistic re-creation (including a particularly resonant use of John Vanderlyn's Panoramic View of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles, a 165-foot circular canvas that envelops the viewer). In Almereyda's world, our sense of self is as impermanent as paint and sand.