Is Archive the first great sci-fi of 2021? We speak to writer and director Gavin Rothery and stars Theo James and Stacy Martin about their AI genre movie…
“I had a bad weekend,” writer and director Gavin Rothery begins when we ask how he got the idea for his new film, Archive. “I was living in a little flat in Hampstead and I had some kind of weird electrical thing happen and both my computers basically died. I was working as a freelancer at the time, so my computers were the core of my life. I lost loads of data. Bad times for me!”
We certainly understand the frustrations of temperamental technology (shh, don’t tell the machines how much we rely on them), but how does a bad weekend equate to creating a futuristic sci-fi film? “You know when these kinds of things happen, you have a lot of negative thoughts, and you feel like maybe it’s a spiteful thing… like these computers really wanted me to have a bad time!” he laughs. “It felt like these computers basically died on purpose to spite me. It was like one of those weird Philip K Dick ideas that just stuck in my head – the idea of a computer wanting to kill itself.”
Indeed, Archive is a story that deals a lot with death. In the near future, George Almore (Theo James) is trying to cope after the untimely death of his wife, Jules (Stacy Martin), while working at a remote, secret facility researching AI technology to build a true, human equivalent android.
However, Jules is still present in George’s life… in a way… via a new form of life-extension technology: the Archive. Not only that but George has secretly skewed the focus of his work towards the goal of creating a simulacrum of Jules using the Archive. His latest prototype, J3, is almost complete, being achieved through two earlier prototypes, J1 (a robot with the learning ability of a young child) and J2 (whose brain capacity has maxed out in teenage years).
It’s this latter prototype that anchors Rothery’s idea of a computer having suicidal thoughts. J2 is a step-up from her partially-completed sister J1 (George didn’t feel the need to finish her before moving on to J2) and can see the vast improvement of the new J3 model. Effectively a jealous teenager, J2 is devastated when George pays more attention to the newer model. This jealousy boils over when her own parts are used to improve J3…
“What if somebody built a human equivalent AI and when they turned it on it just killed itself because it didn’t want to live?” Rothery ponders. “And how does this guy keep this thing alive long enough to find out why it wants to die?
“I wanted to create a story that had themes that everybody could get some kind of a hook into,” Rothery continues. “So I set out to create a story that was based around the themes of love and death because those are the two great human constants that we all have some experience with. Everyone’s going to be able to get some kind of a read on this and there will be a way in for everybody watching it if they choose to engage with it.”
That engagement was also apparent for actor Theo James when he first read the script: “I thought the work was really strong from Gavin from the beginning,” he says. “Not only the human story of love and loss and regret, but also the whole conceptual world-building that he created. The Archive script was just so unique but there was also a level of mystery in there. A lot of it depended on who was directing it and the visuals as well [and] when I spoke to Gavin it became very obvious just how complete his vision was.”
Gavin Rothery’s enthusiasm for Archive is clear when we speak to him: “I mean it’s a crazy thing when you write a story, you make up characters and then you end up getting to make the film. [Then] you’re on set and you’ve got these people, these awesome actors and performers in these wonderful costumes. It’s cool, right? It’s a cool thing being able to hang out with J1, J2, J3 and George on set. That was really quite a life experience for me.”
In fact, Rothery was so dedicated to Archive’s themes making it to the screen that he wrote the script for the movie himself, something he never initially intended to do: “I tried not to write it!” he insists. “I tried to work with other writers, but there was something going on in the interpretation between the ideas coming out of my mind and then into somebody else and out onto the page. It just wasn’t working right, so I just had a go myself and it ended up working out really nicely.”
That dedication is not only seen in the script and the movie itself but down to the very mug that Rothery would drink out of on set. We’ll let James explain that one… “Gavin had an Archive mug that he had made,” he tells us. “He’d had it for a year, pre-production and he was just drinking tea out of it because he said that he wanted George to have a mug which felt used,” James laughs. “He’d been kind of using this prop to degrade it enough just to have it. We didn’t even use it in the end, but I mean that kind of level of detail was pretty specific!”
A huge element of that enthusiasm comes down to Rothery’s love of genre: “I’m a big genre fan,” he smiles. “I love sci-fi. The films I like the best tend to be about the people and the science fiction devices are used to shine a lens on part of the human experience that tells a compelling story.”
This sentiment is shared with James. “[Genre] enables you to tackle certain themes about humanity and loss in the future that you wouldn’t be able to do in other genres of films,” he nods. “Sci-fi really enables that and emboldens it. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of sci-fi that is not that, and technology or the future is used in a kind of glossy way that doesn’t necessarily have any kind of larger reflections on life to bring,” he says. “Not to say that it always [has to], because that sounds a bit wanky and pompous, but I think the best sci-fi movies have at least something small to say about humanity. I think that’s why they’re really interesting: they’re able to do things that other films aren’t.”
Talking of which, Archive introduces us to the idea of being able to continue ‘living’ after death with the Archive machine – a huge data storing device where the data is actually a person who has died. It allows you to ‘video call’ your deceased loved one but it comes with an expiry date. The connection with the deceased becomes weaker as time passes, meaning that George has a deadline on his hands. “These are kind of zeitgeist ideas about using technology to be able to record some kind of brain state and survive or get you inside a computer. It’s about surviving death,” Rothery explains. “I mean, [the Archive has a] little bit of a visual shout-out to the monolith in 2001 [A Space Odyssey]. Sorry Stanley Kubrick if you can hear me, I just love you too much. It’s not my fault. It works too well!”
Talking of big sci-fi touches, another integral genre theme employed in Archive is the idea of the faceless, corrupt corporation. Not only is George beholden to his employer who regularly checks up on his progress but the Archive holding his late wife also belongs to a company and comes complete with an oily corporate employee (Toby Jones) who suspects George is using the Archive for more than conversational trips down memory lane with Jules.
Luckily, Rothery has plenty of experience in the genre sphere, previously working as conceptual designer on Duncan Jones’s 2009 cult hit, Moon. “Corporations are really good sci-fi bodies,” he says. “Any good sci-fi movie [has a] corporation as a front to hide an agenda. It’s a great story device. We came up with Lunar Industries for Moon, we’ve got Weyland Yutani in Alien, we’ve got OCP in RoboCop…
“I find corporations are really creepy at the heart,” he continues. “If you look at a lot of corporations – if they were real people, a lot of them would be psychopaths or at the best sociopaths because they’re all driven by profit. So I think we have a tricky relationship with corporations. I mean, there is a side of the existence of corporations that I really enjoy like they do bring a lot of order to our world and a lot of things are possible because of corporations. So it’s not like they’re all evil, but I do enjoy them in science fiction. The conceit of runaway corporations doing things that we would find abhorrent… I mean, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that kind of stuff in the sort of somewhat cyberpunky dystopian future!”
Though Archive is set in the future, a staple sci-fi element you won’t be seeing are shiny surfaces and flawless technology. Rothery was determined for the film to be as realistic as possible and so ensured the technology within it is pretty much like technology today in that… well… sometimes it breaks. “The film is set in 2038 (although I always find it a bit tricky when you pin a precise date on things),” says Rothery. “We had liberty to do things [because] I was going for one foot in reality and one foot in the future but the idea is that this place has been mothballed for 15 years, so the technology is 15 years old and it’s a bit knackered.
“With sci-fi you can do cool stuff,” Rothery continues. “You can have robots, you can have flying cars, spaceships… stuff that really taps into the kind of primal childhood or that sense of wonder. I mean, some people take magic for that kind of hit, some people enjoy the fantasy side. Personally, I prefer sci-fi over fantasy stuff because it’s got some basis in reality and so I find it easy to buy into it.”
That realism extended to the shoot itself where practicality was paramount. It was important for Rothery that everything on set not only felt real, but was real as well (you can see just how real the sets were with our exclusive 360-videos of the Archive shoot below – for the full 360 effect, check out the videos in YouTube).
“We had everything that you see pretty much,” actor Stacy Martin tells us. “It was completely built. It was there for us to run around. I think there were only a few computerised things that we couldn’t see, but Gavin was really clear that he wanted us to be able to feel the technology and to interact with it. Only in I think one instance towards the end of the film [was there something I couldn’t see]. I was lying down and Gavin said: “Suddenly this big thing is going to come round and do this” and I was like: “Oh wow, yeah we are doing a sci-fi!” I kind of forgot because everything was just so available that I forgot that Gavin was going to add this big thing. It was nice. It was quite freeing for us to not have a green screen and to have things we could see and interact with on set.”
“Yeah, I mean it was unique in the way that you could literally interact with these robots as characters,” James agrees. “I think it looks really great as a result. It looks very tangible and robust, and you can hold these big clunky robots. I think it makes it that much more natural, especially with the relationship with the J2 character.”
With the bulk of Archive being set in George’s remote lab, the key relationships in the movie are those between George and his creations: J1, J2 and J3 (we’re also given glimpses into his marriage with Jules through flashbacks). These relationships are complex to say the least. He’s their creator, their father, but the machines are also based on his late wife…
As a father he can sometimes be especially harsh to the teenage J2: “It was an interesting one actually because Gavin would try and push me to be softer in a fatherly way,” James tells us. “There’s a Bruce Dern movie from the ‘80s called Silent Running. Gavin directed it to me. It’s essentially about a guy and three robots and he fathers them in a way. That was very much a touching point for us with this. Certainly with J1 and J2. They would be like children because their cognitive ability is limited to a certain age. But at the same time that is becoming a bit of a mind fuck in itself, because he’s creating a version of his dead wife. The woman who he wants to have children with and is in love with. So they’re both his children, but then a piece of his lost love at the same time. So it’s a little bit odd and contentious, thematically, but quite interesting and ripe in terms of its meaning.”
George clearly loves his J robots but he’s also trying to create a realistic machine for his wife to embody, so he has a firm and determined goal in mind. Even if achieving that goal means using his early iterations for their parts (in the case of J2) or moving to a newer iteration without completing the original (in the case of J1): “He’s an engineer at heart, so he can be a little bit black and white in some ways,” James says. “Of course he’s emotionally attached to these robots but I don’t think he thinks of them in terms of humanity and that is a theme at the core of the film that I found really interesting.
“He builds these robots and imbues them with the ability to feel and to have independent thought and to fall in and out of love,” James continues. “But then he treats them as machines. The idea of at what point does a machine have all the faculties of the human and then at what point do they get to be called human? Some of the great sci-fi films of our era correspond with those questions, and I think they’re really interesting. Certainly the original Blade Runner. The idea that these machines feel that they reach a certain capacity of feeling and emotion that they deserve to be given the rights of a human. But at the end of the day they are a machine built by someone else, so it’s kind of ripe territory in that way.”
Indeed, though the film centres around George coming to terms with the death of his wife in his practical way, another key element that really comes across is the plight of J2 and how she comes to terms with the idea of a better iteration of herself, and her creator and father losing interest in her. “I set out to create a story about love and death,” Rothery says. “But something manifested whilst I was making it. It was really quite striking but I didn’t see it until I finished the film. We were in the last stages of post production and I was watching the film back because I did quite a bit of the effects work myself at home as we had run out of budget. So I was watching the film every other night at home and it occurred to me that I set out to create a story about love and death and loss, and had accidentally created a story about jealousy and fear of replacement. With J2 there were some very conscious design decisions. I deliberately gave them unreadable faces to see if I could pull it off and hopefully I’ve achieved it. My whole intention, my big personal mission myself, was to make you feel for J2. So I feel like if I can make you feel for J2 then I’ve achieved something on my own personal task list!”
J2 is voiced by Stacy Martin, who effectively has three roles in Archive – firstly as Jules, George’s very human late wife and then the two robots – voicing the teenage J2 and then as the human-like android J3. “It was definitely a process,” Martin laughs. “I kind of went in blindly and was really surprised by it because it was totally different from anything I’d done in the past. We spoke a lot with Gavin but things really started to kick in when I started to do costume fittings because they represent a state of where George’s creations are.
“The hardest for me was actually then going into Jule’s character because suddenly I didn’t have all of this armour and I didn’t have a physical obstacle to work with, so I had to find a different way. But what Gavin was always very intent about was to find Jules and her very stubborn ways. Whether it’s more of a teenage stubbornness or whether it’s more of a professional stubbornness [as Jules], that was the great line throughout all of them. Theo was also very helpful because I was changing costumes and doing all these things but he was just always there for me, not only as George the character, but also as a partner. That was really important for that process. It was kind of vital.”
As the most advanced of George’s creations J3 understands the ethical predicament she finds herself in; she’s an advanced AI based on her creator’s late wife but she is also beholden to George, not just physically (at first she doesn’t even have legs) but emotionally when understanding this new world she wakes up in. “[J3] feels trapped. She feels that someone is constantly in control of her movements,” Martin continues. “Because George does have this sort of ultimate control and the film does kind of discuss, you know, when does an AI have independency and when does it have its own freedom or its own humanity? It’s something that I was constantly battling myself. It was also a very physical experience that I hadn’t quite done before.”
Playing the humanoid android J3 meant that Martin had a lot of physical challenges to overcome, not least in sharing the emotions of the character while under layers of make-up. However that did help with this running theme of entrapment: “I think the difficulty in sharing emotions was part of what made it easier for me,” Martin tells us. “Because that was also very close to how J3 felt, and I think she was learning a lot about her own emotions.
“I definitely underestimated how hard it would be physically,” she continues. “I do like a good challenge. So when they’re like: ‘Oh, it’s going to be quite intense, you know, long hours…’ and I’m like: ‘Yeah, it’s going to be great.’ But basically, I think I turned into the Grinch and was like: ‘What am I doing, this is not okay’.. But looking back now I think it was all really helpful. So as grumpy as I must have felt or as hard or as painful, I think everything really informed the character.”
“It was interesting because I remember that Stacy couldn’t smile in certain forms of J3,” James adds. “It was interesting watching people interact with that because you weren’t being grumpy, but at certain points when the makeup was being set, your facial movements were restricted. So people would say something and expect a certain reaction and get nothing and then be terrified as a result!” James laughs.
“But also I couldn’t really hear very well! So I kept asking people to repeat what they were saying and I think after a while people just gave up talking to me: ‘We can’t, she’s just too intense,’ but actually I just didn’t know what was going on,” she laughs.
Speaking of intense, there is a constant underlying threat that runs throughout Archive – whether that comes from the Archive’s deadline, the pressure from corporate overloads or of the fate of J2 and her increasingly perilous emotional state. We won’t spoil which, if any, of these threats come to fruition but what we will say is that the movie most definitely affords a number of watches… “I was trying to create a film that had value in a second and third watch,” Rothery explains. “You should get a lot out of a second viewing, particularly if you’re into metaphysical imagery and interpretation. There are bolder notes and more subtle notes. Like the meaning of moving water – when you’re looking at the mythology of moving beyond death, and what that means. It’s all on a deeper level and it isn’t anything that you need to know about to actually enjoy the film hopefully, but that stuff is in there consciously. So if you choose to engage with it and go back in repeat viewings, there’s tons of stuff in there to enjoy if that’s your bag.
“I actually tried to make two films at once… oh God, that sounds so highfalutin!” Rothery laughs. “I hate bread crumbs in films because you can never gauge how smart people are and if people don’t get them, they don’t get them and if you do get them, they feel really obvious. So I tried not to put breadcrumbs in there at all but on a second watch, everything is a breadcrumb.
“I hope for people to go back for that second watch and experience a new film,” Rothery says. “If I can achieve that, that would be wonderful.”
Whether watching it for a first or third time, there is no doubt that a movie which ponders on love, loss and sentient robots will bring up plenty of ideas, and for a film that has the intention of appealing to all audiences, the impact of those ideas will inevitably vary. “I think the key takeaway is loss,” James says. “How far would you go to bring back someone that you loved? What would you sacrifice as a result of that?”
“There is a certain melancholy vibe that comes through the film,” Rothery agrees. “But I didn’t want to wallow in it too much because I wanted the film to kind of wrap up in a nice optimistic note.”
Wrapping up on an optimistic note sounds good to us. So is Archive the first great sci-fi of 2021? We think it just might be…
Archive releases on digital download on 18 January