A film review by Craig J. Koban July 29, 2020


2020, No MPAA rating, 100 mins.

Theo James as George  /  Stacy Martin as Julie and J-3  /  Rona Mitra as Simone

Written and directed by Gavin Rothery


The cheaply produced, but ambitious indie sci-fi drama ARCHIVE is certainly derivative of about half a dozen other genre efforts, not to mention that its final third doesn't quite equal the quality of its opening sections.  Despite some wobbly scripting at times, though, writer/director Gavin Rothery's debut effort emerges as a rather thoughtful and engaging piece about A.I. and themes of love, loss, and moving on. That, and it contains a genuinely surprising twist ending that feels legitimately unforced and earned.  And unlike so many countless examples of science fiction these days - which focuses on bombastic action and visual effects overkill first and foremost above everything else - I found ARCHIVE's spare approach so much more rewarding.   

With a healthy dosage of past sci-fi films like EX MACHINA, SILENT RUNNING, and even TRANSCENDENCE (I'll elaborate in a bit), ARCHIVE offers up a familiar premise that's made endlessly intriguing because of the unique tweaks that Rothery engages in here to mix things up.  Set some time in the dystopian future of the 2030s, the story introduces us to intrepid scientist George Almore (DIVERGENT's Theo James), who's attempting to explore the boundaries of what's possible with robotics, artificial intelligence, and - in pure Frankenstein fashion - bringing the dead back to life.  He works in a secluded and secret Japanese research facility out in the middle of nowhere, and his superior (Rona Mitra) tasks him with engineering assignments.  Like a similar character dealing with solitude in SILENT RUNNING, George has robotic companions to keep him company and to help with his research.  One of them is the angular J-1 and the other is the more advanced prototype J-2, which possesses, shall we say, an ability to comprehend the complexity of human emotions. 

There's one other being, if one could call it that, that is housed in the facility: the spirit of George's dead wife, Julie (Stacy Martin), who died tragically under horrible circumstances, but is kept alive because of the latest breakthroughs in "archive" technology. This allows the dead to be able to communicate to the living, but with a limited amount of time before they are lost forever (quite an intriguing hook, if you ask me).  Now, this is where ARCHIVE gets interesting: George has been secretly working on the third robot prototype, J-3 (also played by Martin), something that he does without his boss' knowledge.  His hopes is that he'll be able to fully remove Julie's essence and spirit out of the archive and into this more humanoid android, thus resurrecting her from the grave and hopefully keep her indefinitely alive  However, anyone familiar with the work of Mary Shelley will understand that any scientist playing God and with the laws of Mother Nature usually face horrendous consequences for their actions. 



One of the best things about ARCHIVE is that it takes its time with character introductions and expositional particulars.  Rothery utilizes a slow burn and patient approach to the material early on that's quite commendable, especially during the introductory moments cementing viewers within the tightly controlled microcosm that is George's research facility.  He's essentially cut off from most of humanity, with his robot helpers being his only real friends and confidants.  We are not made abundantly clear up front what George is really doing at this station, why he has these robots, and so forth, but Rothery allows for the screenplay to develop things organically, which mostly fluid flashbacks that provide details into George's past family traumas.  The core dynamics between George and his J-robots are the dramatic epicenter of the piece, made most compelling with J-2, who possesses an intelligence and emotional range that borders an adolescent.  And the robot begins to act up like an unruly teenager, which complicates George's work life as well as his clandestine mission to transfer Julia's mind into the J-3 unit.  Making matters worse is that the older, more increasingly obsolete J models begin to resent the presence of the J-3, making George's daily grind an increasingly tricky one. 

It's been said that copying is the most sincere form of artistic flattery, and ARCHIVE absolutely borrows - rather heavily, as mentioned - from a host of other sci-fi flicks, but at least Rothery appropriates from the best of them.  The stressful interplay between man and creepily humanoid machine is the stuff of EX MACHINA and even BLADE RUNNER, and even the J-3 robot design herself (which thanklessly combines practical makeup on Martin as well as what I'm assuming are some CG augmentations) looks C3P0-like.  There are even elements of the crippling nature of solitude while on a mission, highlighted in the aforementioned SILENT RUNNING or even the original SOLARIS.  And, of course, ARCHIVE seems to echo a lot of TRANSCENDENCE, another movie about scientists using state of the art technology to transfer a human being's consciousness into an synthetic being.  ARCHIVE feels made up of a hodgepodge of other past films, but it at least tries to homogenize them all with innovative and crafty touches.   

It's deceptively easy to overlook performances in films like this, but ARCHIVE benefits greatly by James' soulful and melancholic turn as this limitlessly intelligent, but desperate scientist and engineer that makes decisions that some could easily label as ethically questionable.  We're made to relate to this man's intense levels of hurt that he's experienced in the wake of losing the love of his life, but the film never makes him a righteous and noble figure.  There are the clear cut issues of whether he's justified or not bringing his wife back in another form, which leads into a whole slew of questions and problems about the nature of life and death and what constitutes the soul.  James is low key and restrained throughout most of ARCHIVE, but you can tell the hidden and problematic layers that reside within George throughout (plus, ARCHIVE is mostly a one-man acting show, for the most part, and James seems commitment to the challenge).  Opposite of him is Martin in the dual role of George's wife and J-3, and she does a superb job of encapsulating the latter's growing self-actualization about what she is and what her purpose is with her creator. 

ARCHIVE also looks pretty sensational despite the fact that it's done on the cheap, and Rothery stretches out his ultra stingy budget to make a shockingly attractive piece of future tech sci-fi (you truly gain a sense that every nickel that he had at his disposal is most assuredly on screen).  If you exclude the film's consummate production design, thoughtful attention to character dynamics, and involving performances, Rothery gets a tad undisciplined with the latter sections of his narrative (the whole affair seems to struggle with momentum shifts in the back end).  However, most of Rothery's rookie scripting indiscretions are redeemed by some superbly rendered, last minute revelations that will make you legitimately want to immediately revisit and re-evaluate everything that has transpired in the film upon second viewing.  It's a juicy and well executed twist ending because he never really tips off that he's heading towards turning things completely upside down on their heads, and it also works within the established scientific rules contained within the story.  It's a testament to an emerging and promising talent that Rothery has the goods to tell tales containing ideas and themes as old as the genre itself and make them feel provocatively fresh and alive.  Dripping with the right type of atmosphere and merging the best aspects of future sci-fi and human drama, ARCHIVE is made with vision and skill as is worthy of your VOD rental dollars. 

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