VOD film review: Archive
James R | On 24, Jan 2021
Director: Gavin Rothery
Cast: Theo James, Stacy Martin, Rhona Mitra, Peter Ferdinando, Toby Jones
From Ex Machina and Chappie to The Machine and Moon, films about AI, identity and how humans relate to robots are a mainstay of science fiction. Archive, the directorial debut of Gavin Rothery, joins them with a strong sense of familiarity.
Theo James stars as George, a scientist beavering away at cracking the artificial intelligence code. He’s retreated into his own world within a remote facility, with two robots already under his belt: J1, a creation who’s more box than human, and J2, a creation much closer to home. Even closer to home, though, is J3, the culmination of his work and clearly his passion project – a creation that’s now stolen all of his attention, and one that’s fascinatingly close to perfect.
That both J2 and J3 are voiced by Stacy Martin opens up the film’s most interesting theme – the notion of jealousy, as J2’s gradually apparent emotions are overlooked by George in favour of his new baby. It’s when the film dwells on those complicated feelings and interactions that Archive really comes into its own, weaving a nuanced tale of cause, effect and memory – all things that follow on from self-awareness, but are often reserved for humans in such high-concept fare.
In between these moments enter some more conventional figures, with a supervisor (Rhona Mitra) and more sinister villains (Toby Jones and Peter Ferdinando, both under-used) popping up to put pressure on George and find out what he’s achieved so far. But while they’re included to ramp up the pressure and pace, they mostly distract from the film’s strongest aspect – its patience to quietly observe the questions of sentience and empathy swirling around George’s closed-off existence.
James makes for a compelling lead to watch, teasing out a layer of grief beneath his focused work ethic. Martin, meanwhile, brings some fantastic depth to her robo-incarnations, drawing lines between J2 and J3’s personas through her physical actions as well as dialogue.
She’s supported by Rothery’s impeccable world-building, which conjures up the chilling, lived-in laboratory with a wonderful eye for detail. Rothery worked on the design for Duncan Jones’ Moon, and the understated set and eerily convincing effects follow firmly in that film’s footsteps. Gravity’s Steven Price, meanwhile, captures the balance of hollow experimentation and heartfelt longing through an evocative soundtrack that keeps you immersed through all 110 minutes, even as the script slightly rushes playing its final card.
The result is an ambitious and ideas-filled sci-fi that stands alongside other similar entries in the genre and sometimes risks blending in. But this is an impressive calling card for Rothery as a director, and he gives Archive a style and feel all its own.