This tale of AI and lost love may feel familiar, but manages to distinguish itself with solid execution.
Archive is the second theatrically released science fiction film this year to grapple with using AI to replace a lost love. The first, the largely listless Keanu Reeves flick Replicas, failed at both story telling and money making. Archive, from first time feature film director Gavin Rothery, succeeds at creating an engaging and emotionally compelling story, even if it sometimes feels like a song we’ve heard before.
George (Theo James) toils away at a remote robotics laboratory in the wilderness of northern Japan. The only human inhabitant of the fortress complex, he attempts to perfect his line of robotic companions. With rival corporations, rogue agents, and a cutthroat boss at his heels, he races the clock to create an AI capable of recreating human consciousness…a very specific human consciousness.
Not Working in a Vacuum.
Archive joins a growing list of highly polished, deeply philosophical science fiction thrillers. The setting and camera work are deeply reminiscent of Alex Garland’s opus, Ex Machina. The use of flashback and unreliable narration reminded me of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. While Archive may not dive quite so deeply into introspection as those films, it is a welcome addition to the category.
The Droids You Were Looking For?
Rothery, who worked as a visual artist on the excellent science fiction film Moon, seems to relish dropping Easter eggs by the basket into his film. The first robotic assistant looks very much like the gonk droid from Star Wars, and at one point George pulls out a set of binoculars nearly identical to Luke Skywalker’s from A New Hope. The interior of the facility feels like the more colorful sibling of the Nostromo in Alien. The one scene set outside of the wilderness facility takes place in a Japanese bar ripped from Blade Runner. Fans of the big hitters in the sci-fi genre are going to wear out their pause buttons re watching Archive for its homages.
Besides impeccable visuals, Archive has quite a few thematic elements common to famous science fiction. The corporations of the film’s world are essentially nation-states, conducting soft and hard diplomacy against each other. This leads to social critiques of all manners, though it doesn’t carry it as far forward as films such as Elysium or Upgrade does.
The biggest theme is cheating death. In the future, we see that human consciousness can be stored on massive machines after death. The downside is that they are corporate owned and only have so much capacity – eventually they break down and the mind inside evaporates. In this case, the mind is George’s dead wife, Jules (Stacy Martin).
Archive does a triple dance when it comes to the transgression against mortality George engages in. First, we are shown that Jules flatly rejects the idea of living on after death. If she’s in the box, then George has nakedly violated her will.
Second, each of the robots George creates has fragments of Jules’ personality…but not her actual upload. Each progresses to a different level of growth: the J1 is little more than a child, while the J2 is an increasingly petulant teenager (for good reason, we find), and the new J3 is a fully adult version of Jules. George has essentially created three new lives to fulfill his need to have Jules back.
The third, and thorniest element, is that we only learn that the real Jules is in the box AFTER we meet the J series. That flips the equation violently: it was bad that George was creating a lab-grown copy of his dead wife to play house with. It’s horrific that he’s planning on wiping J3’s mind to insert his dead wife into her, against both of their wills.
Archive brings up a lot of interesting questions about near future technology and human society. Some of it gets a thoughtful and engaging treatment, while some it seems to be merely passing by. Normally, loose ends would frustrate me, but I found Rothery’s world-building to be such that it felt natural. This is a big thought experiment, set into a rather well imagined simulation of a future world. There are going to be incidental ideas and implications in this setting, and they help develop the story instead of side-track it.
There are a few bumps in the road. Both characters we meet from George’s company are a bit over the top, especially the scenery-chewing security chief. The film also doesn’t grapple with the gender politics of its central theme, except by flinging a late twist at the audience that may wrong-headedly be meant to diffuse this criticism.
At the end of the day, I found Archive to be well made and engaging. It’s not the first film to explore these ideas, but it does a good job with them. The acting of our two mains stands out, since they have quite a lot on their shoulders: George being virtually alone for most of the film, and Jules because of the fraught situation she is born into (Stacy Martin plays all three robots and the human Jules, so that’s four characters worth of drama to embody!)
If you’ve enjoyed the bonanza of thoughtful hard science fiction coming out of Hollywood lately, Archive will be a good addition to your library.