Archive is absolutely beautiful, not wasting a single second of its photography. It's fully realized, leaning hard into the world that has been created by director Gavin Rothery, dense with an Oscar-level score. The film requires patience and the ending is either going to have you rolling your eyes or clapping your hands -- but do seek this one out if you're in the mood for well-done, slow-burn sci-fi that's thick with atmosphere and exploding with ideas.
Newcomer director Gavin Rothery explodes onto the scene with Archive, a film that he also wrote, which features strong performances from both Theo James and Stacy Martin, and an atmospheric and dense musical score, composed by Steven Price. Archive is absolutely stunning on all levels, capturing its gripping story through strong visuals and a slow-burn reveal that paints a modern sci-fi classic that deserves to be seen on the big screen.
The year is 2038 and genius George Almore (Theo James) is this much closer to designing a full-on AI that is as close to human as possible, but while doing so in remote isolation for a seedy corporation; George is also fulfilling his own agenda of reuniting with his dead wife Jules (Stacy Martin). George is on his third prototype, which creepily looks and sounds more like his wife than the previous models and that is because he is illegally incorporating a memory host device (known as an archive) that is keeping his wife “alive”, into this latest AI.
George is doing all of this in complete seclusion, tucked away in the snowy Japanese mountains, only occasionally checking in with his superior (played by Rhona Mitra) to report out his status, which has so far excluded anything related to the real AI that he has nearly finished.
This story, set against the gorgeous backdrop, in a futuristic society, tacked on with an Oscar-caliber musical score by Steven Price, immediately sets apart Gavin Rothery‘s Archive from the rest of the bunch when it comes to premium movies on demand.
Yes, Archive is playing in select theaters (I was lucky enough to see it at a nearby theater), but most people are going to be consuming this film in the comfort of their own homes, which I totally understand, but yet I can’t stop feeling sorry for everyone as part of this film is its unique atmosphere, which cannot be captured on a small screen or in a busy room. The vibe this film gives off is incredibly strong, with striking visuals that move with the slower-paced story in a way that builds on everything before it, leading into the finale that’ll surely hook you or send you packing.
Gavin Rothery has written a script that appears to be pretty straight-forward on a surface level, but continues to evolve and surprise around every corner. As the AI known as J3 advances and progresses, so does the audience and our expectations for what is to come next.
George (Theo James) is clearly suffering from the loss of his loved wife. He can’t cope. In fact, the only way he can seem to move forward in life is by constantly clinging to the past and then using those memories to motivate himself into the future, by continuing to design new prototypes of AI to hopefully somehow bring his wife back and set his life back to normal.
This clearly is causing emotional and mental trauma as he constantly lashes out on previous models of AI that he has designed and almost abandoned, despite giving enough smarts to know that he is neglecting them. Not to mention the fact that he is getting sloppy and careless with his overall work, facing constant security breaches and doing everything but impressing those that are funding his entire research.
He’s cracking and those cracks are quickly spreading into all aspects of his life and then J3 is turned on and suddenly he’s given a glimpse of hope.
J3 (voiced by Stacy Martin) is an AI that’s smart enough to know why she was designed, yet confused enough by George’s contradicting intentions as he wants her to be his wife, but a hollow shell with her memories implanted. This creates a whole mess of problems that the film smooths out in adequate time.
I must be frank by saying that Archive isn’t for everyone. For starters, it’s a slow-burn character-driven drama that’s absolutely radiating cool tech and advanced science fiction, but takes its sweet time on the setup. There’s some suspense, but no real action and not a lot of back-and-forth as the majority of the film is just George dealing with his problems and briefly interacting with those outside of his AI machines.
Archive also feels very familiar to other sci-fi greats that have came before it. I’m not saying that it is the next Blade Runner, but it definitely feels like a film in that same world and director/writer Gavin Rothery is clearly paying his respects to so many classics by providing us with a modern take on a universal story. This film is all about regret and the struggle with knowing when to move on and when to stay holding onto the past. It’s messy, yet timely and probably something that could happen by 2038 if our tech keeps advancing the way that it does.
The film ends in an interesting place, a place that I thought was well-earned and handled quite expertly, but I have seen some complain and call it predictable and eye-rolling, yet to me I found it fitting and kind of surprising. I try to go into films like Archive with a clean slate, not bringing in any expectations and not trying to solve every plot point as it unfolds — I instead like to soak it in and enjoy and if the film goes in one direction, then I am on board with it until it all pans out.
Luckily for me, I thought Archive closed things on the perfect note. Director Gavin Rothery lands Archive in a place that brings everything full circle. Some might not like how it arrives at this conclusion and that’s fine, but please don’t let that discredit everything before it.
Archive is that rare sci-fi film that knows its audience and never really tries to settle for anything less. It’s a downright beautiful film to look at, full of stark visuals and great ideas that are fully-realized and really do hit home. Steven Price‘s score is one that simmers throughout, never leaving a scene feeling empty, but always thinking on some level. Theo James gives a hell of a performance, full of pent up raw emotion and rage, slowly bleeding it out over the course of the film’s running time.
I can’t think of a movie in 2020 that hit as heavy as Archive and I am so lucky to have been able to see it safely on the big screen, which is where I think it will play best, but if your only option is to stream it at home, then by all means seek this film out and give it your undivided attention.