Synopsis: Two and a half years into a three-year research contract, George Almore is on the verge of a breakthrough working on a model of a true human-equivalent android. His prototype is almost complete. But this most sensitive phase of his work is also the riskiest.
Stars: Theo James, Stacy Martin, Rhona Mitra, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Lia Williams, Toby Jones
Director: Gavin Rothery
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Remember how we’re always told not to judge a book by its cover? The saying that just because something looks a certain way at first glance it may hold something completely different if you dig deeper? How we’re supposed to look inside for what makes it special? All that applies to movies as well. Used to be that it was just the poster/video box that you could loan that tried and trusty saying to, then it applied to previews when an early trailer would give the impression a movie looked particularly bad, and now it’s graduated to those thumbnails we see when scrolling through streaming content. These quick glimpses have to catch the eye of a potential viewer and entice them not just to explore more, but to commit the time to see what’s inside.
Your first impression of Archive (as was mine) could be that it looks an awful lot like 2014’s Ex Machina, the Oscar-winning sci-fi flick that gave Alicia Vikander an extra boost of star-power. It wouldn’t be totally off-base to say the two films share some small similarities. Both deal with chilly inventors creating lifelike robots that just happen to look like beautiful models. That’s where the similarities end, though, because Archive has less of the slick thriller elements that made up the bulk of Ex Machina’s final act and more of its heady dive into the wonders and dangers of advancements in artificial intelligence.
Taking place in a future not so far removed from our current time, scientist George Almore (Theo James, Divergent) is working at a decommissioned science lab in the mountains of Japan to develop the next generation of robotics. After three years living in near solitary confinement with no one but his earlier less refined models to keep him company, he’s come to a critical phase of his research that must be handled delicately. His boss (Rhona Mitra, Hollow Man) wants faster results but George is holding back giving her the full details for personal reasons that will become clearer as writer/director Gavin Rothery’s sparse but impactful plot develops.
By the time J3 (Stacy Martin, All the Money in the World) comes online, George is already at odds with the J2 model that begins to exhibit signs of jealously toward the upgraded machine replacing her as well as the man that created them both. The more attention George pays to J3, the more willful J2 becomes which leads the film in unexpected directions finding strangely effective emotions along the way. Throughout, we piece together the life George led before he arrived at the testing site, the pain he has been carrying for years, and how he intends to use boundary pushing technology to make his family whole again.
It should come as no surprise that Rothery was in the art department as a conceptual designer for 2009’s Moon, a moody mostly one-man show that had similar themes of solitude as a substitute for grief. He’s made his film in familiar territory and for a first time director I think that’s a wise decision. Sticking with what he’s comfortable with allows him to ease up on overthinking the plot and overdesigning the laboratory. Not that the visuals and special effects aren’t handsomely rendered and the story doesn’t have some heft to it – it’s that they don’t feel so overbaked with the earnestness of a novice filmmaker.
I haven’t had the chance to take much note of James up until this point but he turns in a level performance as a man looking to science to help him through an emotional journey. He’s equally good working with straight-up humans (Toby Jones, The Snowman, shows up in a typically wormy cameo) as he is sharing the screen with different robotic co-stars. Tasked with the hardest job is likely Martin who has to sell quite a lot of looks to the audience throughout, starting with a full body robotic suit that viewed close up exposes the budget limitations the film was working with. Yet Martin achieves high marks for keeping us engaged and convinced that she’s a well-oiled machine.
A rare film that maintains it’s energy and suspense until the very end, Archive is one of those films you’d stumble over by accident and then recommend to your friends as a nice surprise. It’s not going to make a huge mark like Ex Machina did because aside from its achievements in finding root emotions in unlikely places, it doesn’t have anything that stands out and above the rest. What it does have going for it is a consistency of tone and more emotional weight explored than many of its genre sisters and brothers.