Let’s talk a bit about Black Mirror. The thing about Black Mirror is that it’s not always good; sometimes it veers almost into self-parody. But what it almost always does is understand what makes it interesting, and what makes it interesting is something subtle but precise. It’s not just about whether technology is good or bad, or just throwing high concepts at the wall, though it often edges close to those. What Black Mirror is about is about how, and whether, technology changes humans. When it works, it’s about whether the fundamentals of human relations and the human experience – love, death, justice, power – lose their meaning or transform into something else entirely in the context of new technologies. That’s why when Black Mirror is at its best, it’s not because the concept is exceptionally clever or full of twists; it’s because humanity, and the challenges to it, take the center of the story.
This is all a long way of saying that “Be Right Back” is obviously the best episode of Black Mirror. Any other opinion is objectively, factually wrong, and that’s a roundabout but important way of posing a critical, to be frank fatal, challenge for the actual subject of this review, Marjorie Prime. Michael Almereyda’s adaptation of Jordan Harrison’s play seems most at risk to suffer from using its high concept as a crutch. But in fact, in addition to its numerous other flaws and weaknesses, it instead has precisely the opposite problem; it’s not really interested in the intersection of technology and humanity at all. Instead, it draws almost nothing unique, interesting, or challenging out of its futuristic premise at all, using it instead solely as clever leverage to stage a very theatrical family drama.
It’s the future, and Marjorie (Lois Smith) is old. She misses her husband, Walter – but because this is The Future she doesn’t have to stare longingly at an old picture, but instead can converse with an uncanny holographic projection of his younger self (Jon Hamm, whom I half-expected start every line of dialogue with “I am Hamm”). Her daughter Tess (Geena Davis) is uncomfortable with the situation, in contrast to her husband Jon (Tim Robbins) who is generally supportive of it. Without revealing more, “Walter Prime” is not the only “Prime” in the story. What a twist!
Marjorie Prime is adapted from stage to screen with such a lack of creativity, ingenuity, or re-imagination that I’m almost offended. The film is a entirely a sequence of mostly one-on-one conversations, almost entirely in one drab setting, whose beats are all wrong for cinema, shot at flat, dull angles, and occasionally punctuated by a dissonant score that seems just completely mismatched to the material. The performances are hard to even assess; the actors themselves seem to be at a loss for how to make the material feel organic. If it’s an attempt at something high on theory, it’s still a complete whiff on execution.
Marjorie Prime’s fatal flaw as a film is its relentless commitment to being a play; its fatal flaw as a story is its indifference towards worldbuilding. Facebook was invented in 2004, the iPhone introduced in 2007, and in 2017 already our planet has been driven to complete derangement by social media and the ubiquity of information technology. How is it that in several more decades literally the only innovation that has made any kind of difference in the lives of these clearly well-heeled characters is the invention of the film’s central conceit? That’s because neither Harrison nor Almereyda are really interested in whether technology is changing us, for better or for worse; instead, they’re interested in a Lifetime movie of the week about people with no material wants or needs having lots of feels about their family. The only narrative and thematic work that the “primes” do is giving characters an organically inorganic way to vent at dead characters without engaging in pure soliloquy. I can’t tell you whether that makes for good theater, but I can tell you that it makes for cinema even more lifeless than the film’s simulacra.