Here’s Archive, the debut by writer/director Gavin Rothery, who deserved better than for his film to slip between the cracks, which it did a bit thanks to the Covid restrictions. Instead of getting the big-screen release that was on the cards, it slunk out onto streaming months after it was due to be seen.
Rothery’s CV is full of art department gigs. He worked with Duncan Jones on Moon and Archive at first looks like it might be operating in the same territory. Lone guy marooned somewhere, taking orders from a stern voice back at HQ, possibly going mad in the process.
Except George (Theo James) isn’t in an off-world location, he’s in Japan, inside an aged retro-futurist tech facility, working on his own to create a robot to replace his wife, who died in a car crash.
He’s had two goes at it already. J1 (his wife was named Jules) is a big lumbering, silent, armless hunk of metal. J2 is talkative and TV-loving, a proper metal companion, albeit one with sharp edges and a screen where the face should be. J3, however, is different, a slinky humanoid who, once George has given her a mid-show makeover, becomes even more sensual – eyebrows, soft skin, silk clothes. Apart from the odd seam here and there she’s the spitting image of his dead wife. And once he’s downloaded his dead wife’s consciousness into her, the process will be complete.
What happens when you give a tech machine so much AI and machine learning that it develops empathy? One unintended consequence is that the two older robots get jealous of the new, Stacy Martin-shaped J3, J1 expressing herself via a series of disgruntled (concerned?) shuffles, while J2 more overtly pouts and sulks. Trouble is brewing.
So, three women fighting over Theo James (he’s also a producer) – check your privilege etc. At one point Rothery considers the notion of the perfect robot wife in terms of eating (J3 can eat though derives no sustenance from it), leaving other bodily considerations as shadowy suggestions. A box better left unopened, perhaps.
Expertly grabbing hold of sci-fi tropes and design cues from sources as various as Metropolis, Star Wars, Ex Machina and Westworld, Rothery welds together the old-fashioned looks of “hard” sci-fi, all shiny surfaces and whooshing doors, with the grunge of the post-Alien era – in space no one can hear you take the trash out – a modern/postmodern melange.
The story itself is something Isaac Asimov might have come up with for his I, Robot collection, which considers the ethics of possible robot futures and the tricky relationships to be had once machines become super smart.
As you might expect from a man with an Art Department background, Archive looks great. George’s Bond-villain-esque remote lair is a confection of tech in various stages of disrepair. The robot design in particular is very good, each machine having its own personality, even the big lumbering J1, and each capable in a different way of being sinister.
Theo James has grown a beard for the film, which makes him less irritating and more plausible, somehow, while Stacy Martin is (again) perfect, entirely in character both as a warm human being entirely in love with George (all this in flashback) and as a bewildered robot learning the ropes of what it is to be human.
AI taken to the point of empathy, what could possibly go wrong? Sci fi’s focus is more often on the cold robot future (Skynet becoming self-aware in Terminator, for instance), but Archive tugs at a different thread, the warm robotic future. The perils of hanging out with empathic robots – that is very Asimov.
The ending is a bit of a cheat, satisfying in its own way but arriving from left field and explaining a few details, like the sudden arrival about a third of the way through of Toby Jones and a sidekick as a pair of sinister, black-clad gents claiming to be from the company where Jules’s post-mortem consciousness is stored. All is revealed.
A familiar film in many ways, but with a high concept that makes it worth a detour, on a big screen or small. I suspect Archive will develop its own cult following.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021