Charlie Brooker’s future-fears anthology series Black Mirror is far from perfect in a variety of ways, but its many grim looks at possible futures have created a certain set of baseline expectations for modern science fiction based around technological anxiety. At a minimum, stand-alone movies that feel suspiciously like Black Mirror episodes have to live up to the series’ bar for societal relevance and relatable fears. What good is a what-if story if there’s no possibility of it happening, and if it doesn’t channel some sort of concern the audience can feel for themselves? The new indie VOD movie Archive feels like it was made to illustrate the point. It’s highly competent throughout, and outright brilliant at times, but it lacks the necessary level of connection with the real world. And by the end, it’s lost track even of its own hard-earned but fragile sense of emotion.
Theo James stars as George Almore, a heavily scarred, obsessive robotics specialist living in a remote Japanese security facility while he works on a private project. He has a pair of companions: J1, a mute, boxy, armless robot that gently stumps about the place like a Star Wars gonk droid, and J2, a more sophisticated but still boxy update voiced by Stacy Martin. And he’s working on J3 (also Martin), the latest iteration of his work. Even as a work in progress, she looks and acts remarkably close to human. It’s evident that he’s stopped trying to develop J1 and J2, and is focusing all his attention on his newest project. His supposed goal is to develop a human-level artificial intelligence, an AI sophisticated enough to process human senses and experience human emotions. His real goal is simpler, and viewers will see it coming long before he breaks down and admits it.
One early tip-off: J2 already clearly feels emotions, but they don’t interest George, who sees her as a dead end. She can see she’s been abandoned in favor of his new project, and she’s jealous, hurt, and lonely. George is largely blind to those feelings, even though she isn’t hesitant about expressing them — he alternates between treating her and J1 as his troublesome kids, and as industrial labor assistants. His clear case of double-think about what they are and how they function is one of Archive’s subtler and more fascinating threads, and also one of many that first-time writer-director Gavin Rothery completely abandons mid-stream. There’s a wealth of rich, complicated emotion built into Archive’s setup. It just lacks any sort of clear payoff.
And that goes for most of the film’s other rich background elements. It’s obvious that George is keeping J2 and J3 a secret from his impatient bosses, and pretending his AI work has ground to an unprofitable halt. He’s operating on a deadline, with his overseer Simone (Rhona Mitra) breathing down his neck, and an eerie operative named Tagg (Peter Ferdinando) warning that others may be taking an interest in his work. There’s a vague reference to Black Mesa (an aside so brief that it could actually be a Half-Life tie-in), and to other facilities being invaded and destroyed. It feels as though there’s a complicated technological, legal, and corporate war going on just outside George’s doors, and while the only thing that matters to him is finishing J3, it seems inevitable that the war is going to find him first.
On top of all this, there are also flashbacks to George’s life before the facility, when he and his wife Jules (Martin yet again) were happy together, and a side plot about the impending failure of the giant black cabinet where her consciousness was archived after she died. The archive’s approaching breakdown is one more deadline in a film that’s already full of them.
In spite of all those reasons for urgency, Archive is largely a ruminative, thoughtful movie. Rothery is prone to long landscape shots, or stretches of film where George travels from one place to another, or works on outdated equipment outside the facility’s immediate boundaries. Like so many other directors who started out in visual design and effects work, Rothery puts an intense focus on the design details in his debut feature, and the results are exceptional. The opening drone-cam shots of a snowy forest, the establishing shots of George’s remote high-tech hideaway, the lived-in industrial feel of his work spaces — they’re all stunning, and remarkably convincing. This is a terrific-looking movie, in many ways worth visiting just for the world it establishes.
And part of that is the robot work. It’s difficult to not read Archive in the wake of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, another recent story about a possessive tech genius building his perfect woman in captivity. The conversations between George and J3 sometimes seem like they’re taking place one room over from Ex Machina’s action, in a different film where there’s a lot more time to think about what humanity, sentience, and empathy mean. Those are all worthy considerations in this kind of heady science fiction. But Archive’s conversations never go that far beyond the surface, and at times it seems more fulfilling just to watch J2 stump around the facility, communicating pathos with every beautifully designed head-cock and shoulder-slump. J3 looks much more like a woman, but J2 feels far more human, and it’s easy both to sympathize with her, and to get caught up in the tension of wondering how her jealousy will ultimately rip George’s plans apart.
With such a gorgeous world housing so many vibrant emotions, it’s a particular frustration that Archive doesn’t follow through on any of them. It winds up with direct visual echoes of Westworld and Ghost in the Shell, and its tone and setting specifics heavily recall Duncan Jones’ gloriously gritty science-fiction feature Moon. (Rothery has multiple credits as a design and effects artist on Moon, and Archive visibly shows the hand of the same artist.) But it never feels as thoroughly thought-through as any of those projects, as if Rothery designed a world and a cast, but never came up with a theme to unite them. He builds a brilliant tension out of all the ugly faults in George’s little paradise, then abandons it all at the last minute in a way that packs a punch, but doesn’t pay off anything that came before.
And with so much talent and focus on display, that lack of resolution feels particularly baffling, as though Rothery and his team took the wrong lessons from Black Mirror — mainly that an emotional gut-punch can stand in for a complete, satisfying narrative. With this deft and thorough setup, Archive could have been an intelligent, piercing analysis of a thousand possible things — the war between commerce and art, the question of what people owe their children, the limits of control over other people’s lives, the sacrifices that come with love. Instead, it’s about how a satisfying ending has to have something to do with a story’s beginning. Otherwise, as Brooker himself might ask, why have that beginning at all?