“Archive” features the kind of world building sci-fi that could fuel a smart streaming series.
Writer/director Gavin Rothery, alas, has less than two hours to tell his story. His ambitions far outstrip what’s delivered on screen, a disheartening blend of high tech paranoia and B-level chills.
“Archive” gives us an eerie peek at where artificial intelligence could take us. Ironically, the film’s screenplay lacks the savvy to capture that reality, or even keep us fully engaged through the dramatic third act.
Theo James stars as George, a robotics guru working alone in a remote Japanese compound. He’s got company, in a sense. Two clunky robots ripped from a ’50s science fiction yarn assist in his work, eager for their creator’s attention.
That’s a problem, because his latest project is taking up most of his time. He’s working on a far more sophisticated robot, a machine that looks amazingly human down to its feminine features.
“Archive” intersperses George’s work with flashbacks to Jules (Stacey Martin), his great love who died prior to the events of the film. We also learn George’s connection to a company that can temporarily store the minds of the recently deceased so loved ones have more time to say a proper goodbye to them.
We’ve already got enough sci-fi elements to ponder, and that’s before we meet the cartoonishly vile corporation picking up the tab for George’s research. “Archive” treats these elements as superficially as possible, as if they know viewers understand Hollywood’s anti-corporate tropes and need only see them in quick, hurried strokes.
Sorry, that’s insufficient storytelling.
That holds true for much of “Archive,” which leaves us alone with George for enormous stretches of time without us getting to truly know him. James isn’t the kind of star to bring a rich inner life to an under-written part, so we’re out of luck there. He still conveys the longing for Jules that’s vital to the story, essentially holding this rickety tale together.
No star could paper over the fact that George’s robotic learning curve jumps from an R2-D2-level bot to a synthetic human in just a few years, or even months.
— Archive Movie (@ArchiveTheMovie) July 3, 2020
“Archive” dabbles with several ripe themes, from sci-fi paranoia to the limits of A.I. advancement. Rothery integrates them together in a surprisingly smooth fashion, but they still don’t stand out as either compelling or fully developed.
Rothery’s film looks smashing, from its numbing outdoor vistas to the cold steel surrounding George at any given time. The robots, particularly his newest invention, are a dazzling FX concoction that never feels less than authentic.
Indie films once struggled to visually portray expansive sci-fi wonders. Now, it’s well within the grasp of modern storytellers.
Other old-school elements, though, keep getting in the way. Consider those Jules flashbacks. What begins as a vital link to George’s past become narrative dead weight. We’re left with one obvious plot point the film pretends to keep secret, but it’s painfully clear from the very first time we see George tinkering in his lab.
The film wraps with a mind-bending twist that flushes down the modest connections we’ve made with the key characters.
It’s as artificial, and unconvincing, as George’s early robot models.
HiT or Miss: “Archive” delivers stark sci-fi trappings without either the emotional connections or deeper philosophical questions to make them matter.
Virtual Cinema Screenings, On Demand and Digital on July 10, 2020