Studio: Vertical Entertainment
Director: Gavin Rothery
Writer: Gavin Rothery
Producer: Philip Herd, Cora Palfrey, Theo James
Stars: Theo James, Stacy Martin, Rhona Mitra, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Lia Williams, Toby Jones
A scientist attempts to recreate his deceased wife by secretly downloading her consciousness into an artificially intelligent robot.
When horror comes up classified as ¡°slow burn,¡± it usually means a film fabricates suspense from suggestion. These movies make mood out of quiet creeps, sinister shadows, gothic settings, ominous music, and other audiovisual elements enhancing imaginative imagery, sometimes at the expense of pacing.
Sci-fi slow burns similarly favor establishing environment over accentuating action. As with their fright-based brethren, these futuristic fantasies captivate through scenery instead of story, with ¡°Blade Runner¡± (review here) being an evergreen example. While ¡°Blade Runner¡¯s¡± costumes, sets, and props remain a pinnacle of high concept cinema, its plot is uneventfully sleepy, which tends to be another synonym often associated with ¡°slow burn.¡±
In his feature film directorial debut, visual effects artist Gavin Rothery fashions ¡°Archive¡± a lot like an indie incarnation of that ideology. Huge hydraulic doors shaped into elongated octagons link cavernous corridors in a factory-like research facility. Robots both sleek and stocky marry industrial function with modern aesthetics. Akin to a head-on collision between ¡°Halo¡± and ¡°Half-Life¡± with plenty of ¡°Westworld¡± in the middle, ¡°Archive¡± is an absolute marvel of production design, much like ¡°Blade Runner.¡± Also like ¡°Blade Runner,¡± ¡°Archive¡± neglects to plug in a script worthy of the wonderful world it builds, leaving the movie feeling as coldly sterile as a metal mass of silicon and circuitry.
George lost his beloved wife Jules to a car accident two years ago in 2046. She¡¯s not entirely lost however. Before dying, Jules reluctantly agreed to participate in Archive Systems Incorporated¡¯s proprietary program. Their analog technology enables a consciousness to be recreated in a data center. The body may be dead, but the mind more or less lives on in a simulated state for up to 200 hours of posthumous communication.
As a robotics engineer, George has something else in mind for Jules¡¯s archive. Hidden away in a remote lab and smart home overlooking a lush landscape in Japan, George has been dumping data from Jules¡¯s personality into sentient AI bodies. The third and final iteration nears completion. The thing is, no one, including George¡¯s boss, knows he has been secretly using Archive¡¯s systems for an unethical purpose. With suspicious security breaches now occurring regularly, George risks being exposed to corporate saboteurs before he can fully recreate his wife in robot form.
Emotional exploration forms a basis for the movie¡¯s themes. Grief drives George as much as love and obsession. In a peculiar development, machine-learning prototype J2 develops jealousy for her successor when she discovers George plans to upgrade to an improved model. Original incarnation J1 doesn¡¯t have vocal functions, but emits blips and bleeps in tones also indicative of sadness and feeling inadequate.
Amidst this unlikely automaton drama, ¡°Archive¡± forgets to affix a hook at the end of its tether by snuffing the fire that might warm up an audience to George. We see George interact with four different humans across three separate instances. Without fail, each encounter ends with George issuing a threat, defiant deflection, or figurative brush of his shoulder as he consistently postures defensively whether another person¡¯s behavior warrants his reaction or not.
A small handful of lovey-dovey flashbacks introduce Jules and George¡¯s romance with the usual giggling grins and tickle fits. Memories also feature an intense argument regarding the idea of archiving, hesitation over the prospect of uprooting their lives for George¡¯s project, and uncertainty about revealing a pregnancy, so their love story isn¡¯t exactly sweet either.
We should feel, or at least understand through context, the pain pushing George. We should be sympathetic to his loss while wanting to see a deserved man succeed at fulfilling his desire. Instead, we¡¯re left wondering why we should sympathize with a selfish prick who¡¯s angry at everyone, including his robots. It¡¯s an unfortunate comment on a character when a subplot about a machine contemplating suicide packs more emotional intrigue than the main arc of a man mourning his wife.
Writer/director Gavin Rothery¡¯s intense fixation on design distracts ¡°Archive¡± from reaching its full value as a narrative. The movie breaks to cutaways of the waterfall outside George¡¯s complex so often, I assumed it must be a metaphor whose parallel I couldn¡¯t quite see. Then I became convinced Rothery simply couldn¡¯t stop looking at its beauty, forcing us to do so too. I certainly understand the attraction. With its stunning sets and sumptuous exterior locations, ¡°Archive¡± looks amazing, and impressively achieves its sheen for less than what a big studio would budget. Most of the money appears invested in production design and Rothery clearly wants to showcase it.
But he does so to the point of unnecessary indulgence. Laboring shots of George jogging, redundant moments of robots wobbling, and excessive establishing shots pile up into a chubby 109-minute runtime whose insistent mirror preening stunts the story¡¯s development.
¡°Archive¡± brims with bold ideas, and recycles some old ones, to pour a solid foundation for philosophical sci-fi tinged with twisty tension. But those reveals don¡¯t deliver the resonance they would deserve if George didn¡¯t have a chillier personality than his fiberglass creations, or if Rothery resisted the urge to hypnotically gaze at dazzling visuals that don¡¯t contribute to momentum.
Based on curb appeal alone, ¡°Archive¡± remains a fascinating debut feature, diminished only by unbalanced priorities regarding what to put under the hood. Should Rothery apply his artistry with equal attention paid to fleshing out fiction, his 2.0 project possesses potential to be an exponentially richer experience.
Review Score: 55