Although there are seemingly endless entries for science fiction films in any given year, it’s quite rare to stumble on a title that’s smartly written as well as packing emotional power. However, Gavin Rothery’s Archive manages to do just this in a disarming film that deals in themes of loss and grief.
In a near future setting, George Almore (Theo James) has been dealing with the tragic loss of his wife. Focussing his time on the evolution of AI technology in an isolated laboratory, Almore buries himself in his work. In part, this consists of building a successive series of robots that are each more advanced than the last. However, unknown to the company that employs him, Almore is secretly attempting to fuse this technology with resurrecting his wife.
On paper, the story shares a lot of similarities to Alex Garland’s 2014 outing Ex Machina – another film that dealt with the moral implications of artificial intelligence. But where Garland’s film dealt in broader, more action-orientated strokes, Archive adopts a more thoughtful approach.
Part of the film’s strengths is its visual design, achieved by Gavin Rothery’s own considerable artistic talents (Rothery was previously the conceptual designer for 2009 film Moon). This is superbly realised in the execution of the robots that form George Almore’s odd family, but also in the subtle details of typography and GUI design that litter the film’s visual landscape.
The idea that lumbering box-like robots could have some sort of emotional resonance seems absurd. However, Archive seems to tap into the mood of films such as 1972 classic Silent Running, which also gave characters to its blank-faced shuffling robots. Similarly, 2019’s I Am Mother also made a successful effort to lend its robotic character a sense of humanity.
Consequently, over the course of the film, J2 (the second AI/robot prototype), manages to become a character that audiences can identify with. Much of this is due to the childlike innocence that J2 displays, matched also with a sense of futility as technology threatens to overtake her. J2’s story over the course of the film becomes strangely engaging, bolstered by Stacy Martin’s keenly observed performance.
Archive is peppered with quiet moments that nonetheless pack an emotional charge. These oddly affecting scenes include a character simply staring at a waterfall, standing out in the rain or watching a cartoon. In a bigger budget outing, it’s not tough to imagine these moments being excised to serve a faster, more dynamic narrative. But what should be quite dull scenes prove to be actually very touching, heartfelt moments.
Over the course of the film, Almore’s obsession with his ultimate goal results in neglect and tragedy, but it’s delivered in a quiet, understated manner that steers clear of any overwrought melodrama (and is more hard-hitting as a result).
The film’s thrust is also driven by the archive technology that serves the film’s title. Outside of the AI concepts, this intriguing idea plays around with death and memory, throwing up moral questions which also aren’t given a simple answer. Archive’s conceit is also wrapped up in a surprising twist at the film’s conclusion, which flips the whole emotional impact around 180 degrees. It’s tough to assess the film without talking about this particular plot element, but it’s safe to say that it feels earned and slots in another layer of tragedy to the entire narrative.
Across the duration of the film, both Theo James and Stacy Martin provide solid performances (in Martin’s case, she has to effectively play three variations of the same character) and there’s also a smart cameo by Toby Jones.
Archive offers up a story that will haunt your thoughts long after you’ve finished watching it. Anyone that’s been profoundly affected by loss will also likely find that this film delivers a bigger impact.