Gavin Rothery’s first feature as writer-director is a potent and thought-provoking story about a developer of AI robots and how he uses that work to deal with the loss of his wife. A simple story on the surface, with tension and details that give it emotional depth.
Have you ever told a piece of kit or software to “calm down, relax”? In Archive, George Almore tells a robot he made just that and sees that she (yes, “she”) can, that she chooses to. He is many months or years into a research program, at the end of which he is to produce a viable AI prototype. Over this period, he has also been grieving for his “dead but not gone” wife, whose consciousness he talks to by phone for as long as it lasts. This is what the title Archive refers to: the repository of a loved one; and – in case you hadn’t guessed – George has his own agenda (that his sponsors don’t know about) in bringing the two technologies together.
One of my favorite films in recent years was Upgrade, another sci-fi featuring a grieving husband following a car crash, which was pivotal to the story’s motivations. Archive features a similar car, but where Upgrade was more about action and visual wit, Archive is another kind of sci-fi altogether: contemplative and melancholy. When I assign a genre label to a film like this, I’m always aware that it comes with associations, and I have no way of guessing what each reader of the review or watcher of the film might understand or expect from that label. If you are the sort of film-lover who admires Solaris, Metropolis, Moon, or Ex Machina, you will feel right at home with Archive.
Like many films, Gavin Rothery has made something that’s not entirely original, but he has certainly chosen his ingredients with care and blended them with style. This is his first feature film as writer-director, but in no way does this look or feel like a debut result. Rothery had the seed of an idea from a real-life incident (computers failing at home, seemingly in spite), added the experience and eye he had developed on the production design for Moon (and many other titles), along with his lifetime love of the genre and came up with a beautiful and thought-provoking result.
Oh and some great robots; robot characters, in fact.
George Almore, studiously and passionately portrayed by Theo James (Divergent, Sanditon) puts all his effort into “deep tiered machine-learning artificial intelligence, human equivalent, the holy grail”; and only his. He’s working in the middle of nowhere on his own with only the robots he himself builds to help him. So it’s no wonder he treats them as family. As each prototype follows the next, they become more developed, intellectually, as well as more android-like in appearance. And they each have their own Genuine People Personalities, strikingly clear and well-rounded ones at that. J01 is like an endearing child who wanders off; J02 is alternately considerate, petulant, and depressed, ultimately like a sensitive teenager; and J03 is the “final” prototype. (I think I’d like a t-shirt with a print saying “Prototype: please be patient”, which appears on J02’s torso.)
The missing piece in this family is of course Jules (Stacy Martin, Nymphomaniac), George’s wife. We don’t get to find out much about her beyond glimpses of her former personality in George’s flashbacks pre-car crash, and current traumatized personality in the “archive”. But her presence is felt constantly, in J02’s angst, in George’s bereavement and J03 being played by the same actor. J03 is also traumatized, though by “her” AI making rapid and complex connections; the first sound we hear from J03 is a scream.
The writing of these characters, their relationships, and their moods is fascinating; I wonder whether George understands them more as they become more human in appearance, or whether his single-mindedness would always be an obstacle. (That said, most of the robots’ moods emerge when no-one is looking, gazing at a waterfall, or tapping fingers to a record.) And is the nature of their co-dependent relationships a product of cabin fever, living and working in a forest, miles from anywhere? The sets bring this isolation to life: inside, everything is just slightly futuristic, and above all vacant; outside, George’s research site feels small against the huge natural landscape (I’m reminded of Ex Machina again).
And then, forty minutes from the end, there is suddenly a montage of music and visual images, a one-minute presentation about the relationship between man and machine, reflected in the meeting point between both in J03’s development. Images of industrial processes, a robot body being tested with fire, technical drawings, and processes… all stitched together with Steven Price’s music, previously quite ambient and now dramatic. So I’ve been watching Archive again to help me write about it and I was just about to say something about the score, when I got to that sequence and had to pause the film: I could not keep typing while that played, it simply demanded my attention. Now my writing has caught up, and I’ll press play again. The music has settled down and J03 is much more human than before.
And there lies the only fault I can find with Archive: J03 never quite looks like a robot, but rather like (what “she” is) a woman dressed up as a robot. I don’t know how it could have been done differently, mind you; and the psychological drama is more important than the science-fiction element in that respect, but it did mess with my suspension of disbelief slightly.
That’s OK though: I didn’t need to believe what I was seeing in Archive but feel it. Indeed it had such a powerful ending that after watching Archive for the first time, I had to put on something else to take my mind off it for a bit in case it stopped me from sleeping. Oh, and it was no less potent on the second watch.
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Alix has been writing for Ready Steady Cut since November 2017. They cover a wide variety, including genre festivals, and especially appreciates wit and representation on screen.