Director: Gavin Rothery
Stars: Stacy Martin, Theo James, Rhona Mitra
For Gavin Rothery, the future is monochrome. His debut feature – a reasonably scaled sci-fi piece reminiscent of opening salvos from the likes of Duncan Jones and Alex Garland – takes place seventeen years from now. At a remote Japanese facility owned by a corporation named ARM, robotics engineer George Almore (Theo James) is working on his own secret projects separate from the interests of his employers. The lab itself (supposedly older than he is but built in the style of so many chunky future-set locales) is cast in shades of grey. Outside, snowfall dusts the mountains. It reflects George’s coldly isolated circumstances.
Which is not to say that he is alone…
George’s project – his compulsion – is to build a fully functioning AI, but his motives aren’t the ones you might expect. Rather than eyeing personal glory or the advancement of scientific understanding, George is attempting to resurrect his deceased wife, Jules (Stacy Martin), replicating her personality and memories from an archived file, bringing her back through synthesis. We meet him as he is working on his third and most life-like variant; J3.
J1 and J2 are charmingly clunky droids in the spirit of Star Wars; experiments that stalled at mental ages 5 and 15 respectively. In effect, George has built himself a family; two children with whom he is decidedly snippy and now his newly resurrected wife. Curiously, he’s stalled building J3 her legs, leaving her suspended upright like one of the victims of Leatherface. Combined with his often tetchy personality, one starts to wonder whether the man is fashioning a particular type of family; one where he retains the role of master and commander. If so, Rothery mines these fallible urges for comedy (J1 and J2 frequently disobey or undermine him), yet the darker aspects of George’s psychopathology only intensifies. You’re not exactly on his side through this.
The family dynamic becomes more perverse as J2 grows jealous of the new model, and one is struck by how George has recast his wife as a third child in the relationship. With her sleek naked appearance and incomplete personality, J3 (also Martin) adheres to the ‘born sexy yesterday’ trope making this assessment all the more creepy. Yet the film is oddly (perhaps thankfully) sexless. The ensuing drama is played with a totally straight face. Archive is sombre and earnest. This occasionally threatens to hurt the picture. An emotionally scripted tragedy that marks the end of the second act comes perilously close to simply seeming silly.
On a design front the film is immaculate, if a little derivative. J3 in particular will be a cosplayer’s dream for years to come; reminiscent of Karen Gillan’s Nebula from the Marvel franchise, but adhering to the monochromatic palette Rothery has set for the picture. The interiors of the lab, as mentioned, have a reassuringly thick feel to them. Hard, useful spaces reminiscent of garages or cargo decks. There are occasional pops of colour, I might add; usually found in either George’s overalls or the emergency lights that intermittently flood the closed environment.
Rothery feathers his hermetically sealed world with quirky oddballs that add further colour in their own ways. Toby Jones cameos as a corporate stooge but he and his henchmen look and act too much like underlings of Darth Vader. A mid-film change of scenery, meanwhile, introduces us to Peter Ferdinando’s ‘upgraded’ risk assessor, Tagg; a character pitched at the midpoint between Hugh Grant’s Paddington 2 villain and Kenneth Williams.
Still, these are minor players, and the relative strangeness of their inclusion adds personality to a piece that might’ve been a washout without them. Once J3 is finally up and ambulating, it does tend to feel as though Rothery himself has lost a little control over his project. The ending, particularly, is liable to prove contentious (does it tighten the psychological knots of the whole or simply undermine them?). But there’s bags of potential here, and if nothing else Archive marks the arrival of a promising new aestheticist in the sci-fi arena. With franchise material squeezing out space in the genre, we need independent curios more than ever. If Rothery can build on this smartly sized and beautifully rendered debut – and if he can stay out of Disney’s inexorable gravitational pull – the future could be very interesting.