The issue with modern science fiction films, rightly or wrongly, is that they are typically a derivation of a derivation. Something which replicates entirely, or embellishes, an established theme to varying success. Gavin Rothery’s Archive is no different in that it is extremely derivative; however, the final result is surprisingly refreshing. Sure, it focusses largely on the degree of sentience attributed to AI, much like A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Blade Runner and I, Robot, but it eventually sparks some interesting ideas of its own which border between nuanced and referential.
Theo James, who is no stranger to sci-fi having previously featured in the poorly adapted Divergent trilogy, is able to flex his capable muscles as the lead character George. He lives as a reclusive scientist deep in the Japanese wilderness at an isolated facility which sticks out like a concrete thumb in the beautiful landscape. George builds innovative robots for a large tech company under the supervision of his sharp boss Simone (Rhona Mitra). However, his endeavours are a ruse, committed instead to building a prototype which can house the personality of his dead wife, Julie (Stacy Martin).
Fans of the genre will already be correctly drawing comparisons with Alex Garland’s Ex Machina and Duncan Jones’ Moon, with the concept and design of the latter being directly influenced by Rothery. This is startlingly evident in the interior likeness between Sam Rockwell’s lunar station and Theo James’ decommissioned base, but also in robotic similarities. Rockwell’s assistant GERTY 3000, voiced by Kevin Spacey, is almost indistinguishable from George’s J2 prototype, who incidentally becomes jealous as her existence becomes increasingly redundant with the emergence of J3.
Here emerges the male fantasy aspect of Archive, with numerous iterations of increasingly sentient AI pining for George’s attention. This is balanced against well-timed flashbacks depicting the final physical moments between George and Julie, fleshing out characters who aren’t granted much depth otherwise. In the lead storyline, George communicates with a deceased Julie, whose cognition is housed in a Kubrickian monolith and is slowly waning in broadcast strength. Drawn straight from the recesses of Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, the idea of post-mortem ‘half-life’ as a means of communicating with the dead is clearly interesting and controversial. George simply has to harness Julie’s personality from the monolith and implant it in his most recent prototype, before jealous robots and disgruntled employers foil his plans.
Unsurprisingly, the visuals are the most gifted aspect of Archive. The scientific fortress is immaculately created, with subtle effects and an intermittently cyberpunk aesthetic. The J3 prototype, from early conception to full realisation, is impactful and delicate. Despite its relatively humble budget, J3 does not relinquish any ground when compared with Ex Machina’s Ava, played by Alicia Vikander. One standout scene involves the final construction of J3, comprising an intricate montage of assembling hardware and circuitous wiring which is analogous of the maze-like narrative. Cinematographer Laurie Rose works wonders with an indie-level budget to create an understated technological marvel in which the other aspects of the film admittedly lean on.
The initial set up is deliberately vague and its obscurity does result in a formidable amount of intrigue for the viewer. Curt dialogue from Mitra and an unexpected appearance from Toby Jones as an enigmatic officer further pique interest. However, the second act flounders due to a weak script and familiar tropes. J2’s budding jealousy-fuelled insurrection is a tired ploy which has been done to death with HAL-9000 and WALL-E’s AUTO; a predictable reckoning which only detracts from the solid narrative. Caricature-level screenplay such as – ‘I’m a risk assessor. I assess risks.’ – also hold Archive back from being a top tier sci-fi entry.
The third act is where this film’s success hinges. As it gradually builds to a climax, the final twist earns the escalation, with an unexpected event which will surprise most. It plays like the end of a ghost story, with George’s lonely existence proving impenetrable despite the increasingly sentient company. This heavily touches on George’s sense of grief, which manifests as desperation. James plays the role excellently and stirs the audience to attention with a monosyllabic-turned-blistering performance which will surely see his employability soar in coming years.
Despite its lazy, overused tropes and hindering script, the formidable cast and resonant storyline elevate Archive to a realm of potential cult status. It is introspective and subtle, with gorgeous effects that defy its indie status and keep fans of the genre on its side. Some will call it too derivative, and others will slate its exhausted use of AI, but ultimately, it’s uncompromising and fairly bold, especially with its Ubik-esque ending. The philosophical aspects aren’t overbearing or overtly cerebral but do pose interesting questions that hardcore sci-fi fans will undoubtedly enjoy. For first time director Rothery, this is more than competent and hopefully the first of many.
Archive will be available to watch from July 12th.