'Archive': Film Review

Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment
A sleek and satisfying riff on familiar sci-fi themes.
7/10/2020

Theo James plays a brilliant but troubled roboticist in Gavin Rothery's sci-fi debut.

An under-the-radar indie science fiction film whose mix of accessible themes and strong execution make it worthy of broader exposure, Gavin Rothery's Archive watches as a robot designer tries to exploit his job with a megacorporation for a very personal goal: He wants to build a robot shell for the computer-archived memories and personality of his dead wife. The feature writing/directing debut for a man whose history is in art departments, it should be no surprise that the pic looks wonderful, with distinctive design and lush settings; but Rothery also fares well with the human element, helped by a mature lead performance by Theo James, best known for the YA Divergent franchise.

James plays George Almore, who's been sent by himself to work in a "mothballed facility" owned by what one scene intriguingly hints is a "sovereign" corporation. Who knows what their core products are, but he's supposed to single-handedly fix up this outpost in a snowy Japanese forest (it looks like Fallingwater as filtered through the design language of interplanetary exploration) while simultaneously refining a big, boxy robot with "01" stenciled on its side. The vibe is a bit like Duncan Jones' Moon, on which Rothery worked, except that George gets to go for bracing runs through the trees instead of being locked in an airtight dwelling with the voice of Kevin Spacey as his only company.

But while the ungainly 01 is what he shows to his boss (Rhona Mitra) on their video-call status updates, George already has a second-generation version up and running, and this one can talk to him. A third iteration, this one fully humanoid in its shape, is half-completed in his lab. We come to understand that each machine is run by an AI whose development corresponds to the sophistication of its physical design. The brain inside 01 maxed out at the equivalent of a five or six year-old human; 02 is 15 or 16; he believes 03 — or J3, since these are all attempts to recreate his wife Jules (Stacy Martin) — will be capable of adult-level thought once she comes online.

If J3 proves suitable, he'll make this 'bot the new home of memories currently stored in the wardrobe-sized box where Archive Systems Incorporated has stored his wife's essence. We're told only enough about this system to give the plot urgency and poignancy: Because the invention must store human data in analog format instead of digital, it decays over a short span. The deceased remain conscious and able to communicate with their loved ones, but the quality of those calls degrades until, after a couple of years, the consciousness has disintegrated and the big box follows the loved one's body into the grave.

Outside forces — corporate warfare, perhaps? — threaten to wreak havoc at this facility, and if George's bosses find out what he's doing, they'll surely confiscate everything he has made. So it's worrisome when J2 shows signs of instability in daily chores. Really, how could you create a robot teenage girl and not expect trouble?

Rothery's computerized-afterlife premise riffs on a zeitgeisty notion explored most recently in Greg Daniels' Upload series, but the film echoes the cinema of artificial humans more broadly, from Ex Machina and Westworld back to 2001 and Metropolis. Rothery draws less attention to the profundity of his material than many of his predecessors do (though not light-hearted, the pic also doesn't strain for gravitas), but he's smart about his themes in ways that can't really be identified without ruining some of the film. Rothery's script opens up enough possibilities that it's impossible to guess what kind of action will bring the story to a close — a HAL 9000-style freakout? a saboteur? a desperate escape from military assault? — but it seems a pretty safe bet that a long marriage to an eternally-young, loving robo-wife isn't in the cards for this lonely man.

Production company: Independent
Distributor: Vertical (Available Friday, July 10 on demand and digital)
Cast: Thoe James, Stacy Martin, Rhona Mitra, Toby Jones, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Lia Liliams
Director-Screenwriter: Gavin Rothery
Producers: Philip Herd, Theo James, Cora Palfrey
Director of photography: Laurie Rose
Production designer: Robin Lawrence
Costume designers: Toth Andras, Godena-Juhasz Attila
Editor: Adam Biskupski
Composer: Steven Price
Casting director: Gemma Sykes

109 minutes