To say 2020 thus far has been a hell of a year would be a gross understatement...
...We’ve all been through quite a bit since December 31st rolled over into January 1st; I know I have. I’m tired, I’m anxious, and I’m entirely uncertain what the future holds. But I’m also just a boy, standing in front of another boy, asking him to not, for the love of god, put his dead wife into a robotic husk of his design. However, it seems with the arrival of director Gavin Rothery’s feature debut Archive, my plea has fallen on deaf ears.
Archive is an affectionate love letter to the pantheon of science fiction films that precede it both aesthetically and thematically. George Almore (Theo James, Divergent) is a gifted robotics engineer toiling in solitude in a clandestine research facility deep in the forested mountains of Yamanashi Prefecture in 2038 Japan.
With the help of two successive prototype robots imbued with varying degrees of artificial intelligence, George battles power failures, power struggles with his benefactors, and general ennui. Oh, and his wife, Jules (Stacy Martin, Nymphomaniac), is dead and housed securely within a Clarke-esque black monolith from which she occasionally calls George on a small display.
The latter of the two robots, J-02 functions at the level of a teenager, venturing out into the forest with him, assisting in repairing malfunctioning security beacons and power conduits and sharing the contents of her dreams. Yes, you read that correctly, and no, her dreams aren’t of electric sheep. They seemingly belong to the mostly, kinda, sorta dead Jules. J-02 has personality to spare and a mind of her own, capable of pointed opinions and the most adolescent of all emotions, jealousy.
Things grow ever stranger as George reveals J-03, his newest prototype. Radically more human than her predecessors, she’s a monochromatic effigy of the human upper half. One part Ava from Ex Machina and one part Borg Queen. It’s immediately apparent that she is George’s magnum opus and the obvious vessel into which he plans to transplant his wife.
An interesting heft is given to the emotions of the robots. In particular J-02. We’ve seen countless films that lend emotions to sleek “sexy” female androids, but less often are we confronted with the clunk and bulk of cubic automatons waxing poetic or throwing tantrums. That’s just what we get with J-02, and it’s an unfortunately under-explored component of the narrative. More character real estate is occupied by the journey of the cookie cutter and far less interesting J-03, or as I lovingly refer to her, Waifu-03 (one will note her frail pale figure and blown out snow-white anime wig). Rothery tries his damndest to make J-03 an interesting character but none of her wispy curiosity can compensate for her hollow innards.
Rothery puts his art department experience from Duncan Jones’ equally solitary/A.I.-heavy Moon to work in Archive. Visual cues from countless science-fiction cornerstones abound. Within the first two minutes we’ve already seen Ex Machina, Blade Runner, and Alien, down to the use of interspersed English and Japanese on the walls and digital displays.
Much of the research facility, like J-03 and her sisters, is monochromatic with the few splashes of color coming from George, the only being of flesh and blood for some distance. Even the surrounding forest and mountains are muted shades of slate grey, powdered in snow. Where the story runs thin the visual craftsmanship steps in to elevate the project. It’s a good looking film to be sure.
Movies dabbling in the marriage of artificial intelligence and robotics can crudely be broken down into three subcategories: the how, the why, or the what if. The Terminator and The Matrix are great examples of the what if. These pit humanity against the merciless agenda of its children. The what if is the easiest to work within because it renders the other two irrelevant, or at the very least non-essential. Yes, a what if can address the how and why and further enrich itself, but it doesn’t live or die on either.
The greatest failures of this subgenre come from films that seek to tackle the how or the why to too great an extent. Ex Machina is a splendid showcase of balancing both. Archive, through the eyes of George, leans too far into the how and leaves the why to its least-interesting synthetic. Most of J-03’s attempts at the why of things are either explicitly asked or telegraphed through the age-old exploration of the body/self. Staring and examining, poking and prodding, the unnerving and rapid donning and discarding of facial expressions, ballerina-esque pixie limb nonsense. We get it, she’s a hunk of metal and she knows it.
It’s not a bad film, it just didn’t borrow enough of the collective hearts of its inspirations to keep its own beating. Save for a few genuinely intriguing passages with J-02, this movie won’t require a memory wipe to be forgotten. Still, if you’re a glutton for robots, this might be the droid you’re looking for.
Archive becomes available on VOD/Digital July 10th from Vertical Entertainment.
By Paul Bauer