Director: Gavin Rothery
Writer: Gavin Rothery
Cast: Theo James, Stacy Martin, Rhona Mitra
Running Time: 105 minutes
Released: 18 January on digital platforms
Despite having made his bones as a locker-door heartthrob with the Divergent series of divertingly mediocre YA, for many of us, Theo James will forever be remembered for having a bit of poo up his nose in The Inbetweeners Movie. For much of Archive, James is carrying the film by merit of being the only human on screen and he’s a genuinely compelling watch throughout, establishing himself as a potential leading man.
First-time director Gavin Rothery has a solid CV, but his work in visual effects and production design on Moon forces its way to the brain almost immediately, so we really have to confront this head-on. Like Sam Rockwell’s Sam Bell and his cheerful AI, James’ roboticist George Almore is a solitary figure who spends most of his time wandering space-age corridors in silence, addressing his paternalistic musing to two robots. The first is a mute fridge/freezer with no arms and the intellect of a toddler called J1, and the second a disquietingly needy Asimo-type called J2 (voiced by Stacy Martin, Nymphomaniac, High-Rise).
Much of Almore’s inner life is one we’re not privy to aside from the occasional flashback, but there is a determination and darkness to him as he attends to achingly mundane maintenance or jogs through the frosty forest around his lab – an environment as unreachable as himself. When not being upbraided over a video call by his cartoonishly evil corporate supervisor, Simone (Rhona Mitra, Supergirl’s Mercy Graves) – and almost all the supporting characters are gurning it up like it’s a cut-scene on an arcade game – he painstakingly engineers an arrestingly beautiful robotic form (also Stacy Martin) for his deceased wife, Jules (Stacy Martin again).
Her memories and personality – her soul, perhaps – are stored in a vending machine-style archive, which he is able to video call, although the interference grows increasingly unstable as whatever technological necromancy is employed begins to fade. The clock is clearly ticking and for all of science fiction’s visual cues, there’s a nerve-rattling tension to Archive that owes more to horror. From the outset, the plot is seeded with potential threats. There’s the boss looking to pull the plug on Almore’s research, the system failures that leave external doors open to the elements, the watchful and envious J2 who lingers at the edge of every frame, the company’s leering risk assessor Mr Tagg (Peter Ferdinando, Ghost in the Shell, High-Rise), and an oily Toby Jones, from the tech support Schutzstaffel in their black leather. Not all of these threads get pulled. We certainly don’t get enough of Toby Jones for our entry fee, and it’s difficult not to spend every second expecting something horrible to happen and end up feeling a little cheated when it doesn’t. By the time the twist kicks in, however, much of this can be forgiven and you’re left with plenty of heavy themes to chew over.
Almore’s lack of introspection and engagement with the concerns of J2 drive a highly emotional subplot that is soon echoed by the principle story as the humanoid J3 takes her first steps. What moral right does Almore have to create lives with such a deep – and deeply unhealthy – emotional connection to him, and to ignore those needs? What right does he have to treat his dead wife’s memory as nothing more than a salve to his man-pain? In the end, Archive turns out to be a one-sided love story – a parable on the damage done by self-obsession – and Almore gets everything he deserves.
Archive releases on digital download on 18 January