AI flick “Archive” creates a nostalgic scrapbook of classic sci-fi, but lacks unique elements of its own
Originally published on Elements of Madness
The dreams of easing our loneliness with humanoid robot companions and the realities of AI technology development have raised intriguing questions about ethics and the limits of technology, questions that have made way for fantastical cinematic plots and memorable robot protagonists. Would advanced robots turn on their creators, leading to war and mayhem? Would they seek out close relationships with humans, only to leave us when our brains proved too slow for their computerized minds? Could computers and AI technology somehow preserve our loved ones after death? Writer/director Gavin Rothery explores these questions and more in Archive, a futuristic sci-fi drama that pays homage to classic robot flicks of the past.
In the year 2038, George Almore (Theo James) is on the verge of a breakthrough in AI technology. After nearly three years of research and two semi-successful prototypes, J1 and J2, George is ready to activate his third and most human-like unit, J3. He’s under immense pressure from his funders, who demand to see some progress, but George has been keeping a secret. His AI units aren’t just imitations of human life, but attempted reincarnations of his deceased wife, Jules (Stacy Martin). Since her death, George has kept in contact with Jules thanks to a company called Archive, which preserves human consciousness for a few years after death and allows loved ones to communicate with the deceased through video calls. The Archive technology is limited, however, and, as the remains of Jules’s consciousness fade away day by day, George intends to borrow and improve the technology in his own AI units. As George divides his late wife’s thoughts and memories between three separate robots, each stuck in different stages of human development, he faces serious relational problems with his creations that he didn’t anticipate. J2 becomes envious of the new-and-improved J3, demanding more attention from George and looking for ways to restore her own sense of purpose. The clock is ticking for George to finish his work, and the tension between his prototypes leads to heartbreaking ethical dilemmas.
Stylistically, Archive is a patchwork of references to classic sci-fi blockbusters, creating a pleasant, familiar feel for cinema lovers. The run-down research headquarters where George works, nestled in the snow-covered mountains of Japan, resemble the opening scenes of The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and the Echo base on Hoth. The upbeat oldies on Archive’s soundtrack, paired with George’s fondness for his vinyl collection, recall the widely popular Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) soundtrack. J1 and J2 reflect the lovable title character of WALL-E (2008) in their design, especially as the heartwarming J1 watches her favorite old cartoons every night before bed. With its recognizable, familiar style, Archive warmly invites the audience into its world without the need for extensive explanation about its setting. It also packs excellent cinematography with breathtaking landscape shots, playing with the differences between technology and nature. Archive leaves you with a pleasant, bittersweet feeling as it draws up memories of classic AI films and reflects George’s lonely, bleak life in its design.
Narratively, Archive is also a patchwork of recycled plots and conflicts, echoing a variety of fiction favorites from Astro Boy to Frankenstein. With so many obviously familiar elements, Archive requires us to ask if it brings anything new and memorable to the table. While this film may not be narratively groundbreaking, its strongest narrative success lies in the dynamic it creates between the three prototypes. All three of the Jules models are dynamic characters that command the screen. As they pursue their ambitions and fight for George’s admiration, they demonstrate the strengths and failures of human emotion that make narrative drama work, despite the fact that they are machines. J2’s jealousy and unpredictability drive much of the plot, and J3’s progress from newly-activated machine to fully resurrected human shapes the narrative landscape of the film. The J3 prototype alone is eye-grabbing, with a sleek design that is both human and other-wordly. Although the prototypes share few on-screen interactions, the underlying tension between them as three parts of the same human consciousness gives Archive a narrative edge.
George, on the other hand, is quite forgettable compared to his robots. Archive relies much too heavily on the rugged-individualist-widower archetype without doing the extra work to characterize George and help us sympathize with him. Even as he faces a narratively familiar conflict, trying to defeat death and bring back his loved one, the effort feels half-hearted. The script does not give George many chances to verbally express his emotion, requiring more subtle character-building on actor Theo James’s part. In many scenes, however, George comes across as unfocused and fades into the background, creating the impression that he isn’t very involved in his own conflicts. When he does show emotion, it’s usually anger directed at his prototypes, which certainly doesn’t help the audience to understand or connect with him. While the Jules prototypes are engaging and interesting, George emerges as flat and forgettable. Archive does grant George the most screen time, however, establishing him as the protagonist and leaving the film narratively unbalanced.
Archive could have done more with the elements it had, and with a more sympathetic main character, it could have brought something truly unique to the sci-fi table. It does achieve moments of striking beauty, but, unfortunately, the success of its design overpowers its narrative elements. Although it may not be the next best thing in futuristic fantasies, it’s worth the one-time watch for its striking visuals and nostalgic references.
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."