What’s the story?
Like many sci-fi classics, Archive deals with the relationship between humans and machines. More specifically, the film asks the question of what makes us people, and if it’s only our memories that keeps us being ourselves.
George Almore (Theo James), a robotic specialist living in isolation in Japan tries to blur the barriers between man and machine. He lives with two robot companions, J1 and J2; J1 is an archaic robot, one of George’s first creations, while J2 is a slightly more advanced version of his companion droid.
Even though J1 and J2 could be considered technological marvels, George’s real objective is developing J3, a robot that’s supposed to act and look as human as possible. Unbeknownst to the world, George’s real plan involves bringing back his late wife through J3.
The movie merges two main storylines: George’s struggles to advance his Ais and the Archive company trying to uncover the true nature of George’s research. George’s impatient contractors grow weary of his constant setbacks, as he keeps J2 and J3 a secret from them.
Time’s running out for George’s investigation, as the archive that holds Jules memories begins to fail. Away from his lab, his contractors also grow tired of the lack of progress his investigation yields, and they prepare to put an end to his expenses once and for all.
We won’t go into spoiler territory here, but let’s just say that not everything in the story is what it seems. The plot twist near the end makes the experience completely worth your while, especially if you’re a fan of sci-fi mindblowers like Black Mirror or Ex Machina. That said, it’s also a little out of left field, and might leave some audiences disappointed with the movie overall.
Is it any good?
As far as sci-fi tropes go, artificial intelligence and the dangers involved in it are certainly in vogue these days. Many movies gave Turing’s theories a shot in recent years, and they’ve seemed to enjoy delving into what differentiates a human from a computer. Take for example Spike Jonze’s Her: the premise of that movie was about a human-computer relationship, and if the feelings that emerge from such a connection could be considered real or simulated.
Archive poses a similar conundrum, as George tries to piece together the experiences that encompass his wife. He hopes that he can create a perfect clone of his beloved Jules, ignoring the question if he’s falling in love with her wife or with his idea of who his wife was.
At its core, Archive works not just as a sci-fi romp, but also as a philosophical thriller about the essence of a person. George firmly believes that Jules is the sum of her memories, and doesn’t even consider if the machine is able to love him back. Their relationship works in a way similar to the Chinese room argument, where a computer will always follow its programming, unquestioning of what it actually means to follow these commands.
One thing Archive does really well is imposing an authentic feeling of urgency in its plot. There are several deadlines that work against George’s plans, including the approaching breakdown of Jules archive. This puts George in a difficult spot, as he has to complete the work of his life before the memories of his wife are forever lost.
This is the directorial debut of Gavin Rothery, who previously worked as a conceptual designer and for his work in the graphic department of movies like 2009’s Moon. His previous experience in the industry shows throughout Archive, where set design and props all look amazingly good. The attention to detail is sublime, as George’s lab looks positively lived-in and every piece of tech looks convincingly real.
Rothery is also a fan of creative camera movements: throughout the film, we see a variety of inventive shots and beautifully tracked drone shots of the exteriors of George’s lab. Archive invites you in with its intrigue-filled plot, but the real reason to stay are its visuals.
One of the movie’s most frustrating elements is that its creative ocean its just one inch deep. That means that, while it might seem like the movie will end up being a deep analysis, it’s only skin-deep. Most of the conversations between George and his Ais never yield much result, and they definitely don’t help to move the plot forward.
Comparing the conversations with the AI seen in Archive with those in Ex Machina, it’s difficult not to feel like the movie missed its chance to be more than what it is. The threat of George’s contractors also feels artificial at times, ironic, considering that they’re supposed to be the only other living humans that George has contact with.
As we’ve mentioned before, the movie ends with a twist that changes everything that happened in the story, and not necessarily for good. Some directors seem to be hellbent on delivering a shocking twist at the end of their movies, consistency be damned. Archive suffers because of its “gotcha” moment at the end, as it quickly becomes apparent that nothing that happens in the movie really mattered all that much.
Archive’s head-scratcher plot works for the most part, as long as you don’t dwell too much on its disappointing ending. For better or for worse, Rothery’s experience really shows in this movie: beautiful visuals sadly muddled with subpar characters and plot.
The elephant in the room continues to be the plot twist at the end: M. Night Shyamalan would blush if he saw what Rothery tried to pull at the end of Archive. These kinds of movies tend to need a surprise ending, but such conclusion should follow the logical rules of the world they’re in. Archive ignores everything it worked to build just to try to surprise moviegoers, but in the end, it just robbed the movie of any meaningful point it tried to make.
The way the movie hurriedly concludes its story could work as a metaphor for death in a nihilistic mindset: everything just ends, and nothing really mattered in the end. This might be enough for a novel’s ending, but when you build a world as visually interesting and nuanced as the one seen in Archive, the sudden end just sours the whole experience.
Unsatisfactory ending aside, Archive is a great sci-fi movie, and a great directorial debut for Gavin Rothery. The movie is more than the sum of its parts, and the overall experience is that of an enjoyable story about what means to be human. Definitely give Archive a chance if you’re looking for a unique setting and a rich world, and let’s just pretend that the ending never happened.