Archive (2020)

Archive first published by Sight & Sound, March 2021

Review: In Archive, the feature debut of writer/director Gavin Rothery, two very different types of futurist technology converge: the emergence of ‘deep-tiered machine learning artificial intelligence’ that can convincingly match a human mind; and the ‘Archive’ of the title, a commercially available device that preserves the consciousness of the recently deceased so that surviving loved ones can continue to converse with them via a televisual medium that slowly degrades in quality over time. Bringing these two techs together is George Almore (Theo James), a talented robotics engineer secretly developing a prototype android to house the Archived consciousness of his wife Jules (Stacy Martin), lost two years ago in a car accident. Almore is under a lot of pressure: he might at any time lose his cushy job doing solo R&D in Japan’s Yamanashi Prefecture (especially if his employers at the ARM corporation realise he has been moonlighting on his own projects); the top brass at Archive are starting to suspect he is tampering with their patented tech; and someone is systematically assassinating ARM researchers. 

“I swear this thing’s got ghosts in it,” says George as he fixes a security panel in an “old mothballed facility in the middle of the forest” where everything is always breaking down. It is not the only ghost in a machine – for there is Jules herself, whose connection via the Archive is gradually fading, even as George’s sophisticated, humanoid robot J3 rapidly approximates Jules, and the earlier prototypes J1 and J2, respectively attaining the human intelligence of a 5- and 15-year-old, are like the children George never had with Jules (pregnant at the time of the accident). An increasingly angsty adolescent, J2 is empathetic, can talk (and tell lies), entertains herself with TV and LPs, and even dreams (although not of electric sheep). J2’s love for her developmentally impaired ‘sister’ J1, and her jealousy at herself being displaced in George’s affections by the even more advanced J3, are artificial constructs, but still come with genuine dramatic seriousness, as do J3’s more complex emotional states. Here, the real and the merely fabricated form a singularity.

Both animating the inorganic and resurrecting the dead, George is all at once Admetus, Daedalus and Pygmalion for a future age, even as Archive reconstructs itself from the fragmented memories of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), Caradog W. James’ The Machine (2013) and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014). Rothery’s soulful, at times surreal SF debut works on multiple levels as, certainly, a very modern ghost story but also a  paranoid thriller, a yearning romance and an introspective tragedy, full of hubris and catastrophe. Like J3, it is very precisely crafted to simulate a convincing reality where even the odd moments of uncanny valley in these idyllic Japanese mountains are there for a reason.

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Synopsis: Japan, the future. In an old, isolated facility, George Almore works alone on robotics R&D for a corporation, but is secretly developing an android to house his late wife Jules’ consciousness, currently stored in an ‘Archive’ box which allows the dead to continue communicating for a finite time. As George reconstructs Jules, he must face moody prototypes, a menacing boss, suspicious Archive operatives, mysterious assassins – and also the dawning realisation that it is in fact he who is dead inside the Archive.  

Anton Bitel