High-concept science fiction films have taken a backseat to the spectacle of bombastic blockbusters. Thankfully, there’s still been a fair share of gems that have captured the genre’s weighty, throwback appeal. Efforts like Ex Machina and Her have used their inventive settings to offer deft commentaries on our relationship with technology, while also flexing the strength of the genre’s minimalistic origins. The latest iteration of the subgenre Archive offers another satisfying low-key experience despite an inability to reinvent its framework.
Set in 2038, Archive follows George (Theo James) a scientist working in an isolated base trying to create a new AI prototype. After crafting a few successful robots, George secretly sets his eyes on creating a human equivalent, one that would replicate his deceased wife Jules (Stacy Martin).
After working alongside Duncan Jones in the 2009 sleeper hit Moon, writer/director Gavin Rothery offers an impressive debut with his first feature. His proficiency in visual effects significantly elevates his low-budget resources, creating a cerebral, lived-in world that features a plethora of inventive design concepts (I love the blocky practical look of the J1 and J2 robots). Working alongside Director of Photography Laurie Rose, the two craft a visual style that is equally steady and sterile, patiently allowing the camera to sit while creating an uneasy atmosphere from the start. Rothery deserves a lot of credit for exploring fresh technical avenues in science-fiction storytelling, especially through the inter splicing of mechanical specs and searing lights to display the life infused into these uninhabited machines.
Archive soundly breathes humanity into its sentient subjects. Stacy Martin offers emotionally vulnerable work as Jules, as well as robots J2 and J3. J2 steals every scene they are in, with Martin shedding the character’s cold veneer to display a sincere sadness as a creation of George that is getting put to the wayside in favor of a newer model. The character’s arc is a sound reflection of our disposable attitudes towards technology, as our society always searches for fractional improvement to already satisfactory devices. Theo James adeptly plays off his robotic creations with ease, while unearthing a sense of danger as a mad scientist with an unhealthy dedication to his craft.
Archive is as solid as they come, but the film ultimately does little to distinguish itself from its peers. Aside from a last-minute plot twist that leaves a potent sting, Rothery’s screenplay largely rests on the conventions of human/AI works, lacking the emotionality or thematic bite to leave a lingering impact. It’s your typical “man vs. god” battle that exists in every film of this elk, leaving me wishing Rothery did more to personify a distinctive experience aside from the well-colored visual components.
If viewers can stomach a lingering sense of familiarity, Archive offers a sturdy, slow-burn science fiction throwback.
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