In a future near enough to be recognisable and far enough away to be believable, scientist George Almore (Theo James) works alone at an aging remote outpost hidden in the snowy forests of Japan. His goal is to create a new artificial intelligence for the ARM Corporation which funds his work. But secretly he has his own agenda: create a realistic robot capable of taking on the persona of his deceased wife Jules (Stacy Martin) who died in a horrific car crash that George survived.
Luckily George has Jules’ memories backed up in an Archive – a storage device created by the Archive Corporation that enables a loved one up to 200 hours interaction with the deceased as a means to come to terms with the loss and say a final goodbye. But George has good reason to invalidate the warranty by tinkering with the imposing black monolith (imagine if Stanley Kubrick designed a fridge); so he can use Jules’ stored mind to recreate her in an artificial body.
As a modern Dr Frankenstein resurrecting the dead, he’s assisted by Igor-type helpers in the form of the earlier more basic prototypes he created attempting to perfect his method. There’s J1, the robot equivalent of lumbering 80’s brick phone, incapable of actual speech and with the brain capacity of a child. J2 is more advanced but still basic and cumbersome; the Nokia 3210 stage of development with the brain (and emotional) development of a teenager. His breakthrough is J3; the sleek android version of the latest iPhone, capable of hosting Jules’ mind in a body based on her own looks. George’s efforts are slowed by his boss Simone (Rhona Mitra) constantly video calling wanting updates, visits from the Archive Corporation who suspect he’s reverse engineering their technology, and the petulant J2 who seems to be deliberately hampering his efforts due to her jealousy of J3 and the fear of being replaced.
At first look it’s no surprise that that director Gavin Rothrey was a key design creative on 2009’s Moon; from the story of a lone man bleakly isolated with only memories of loved ones and computerised AI for company as he works and reports back to distant bosses, to the impressive production design of futuristic but aged tech and grey modular habitat adorned with numbers and hazard markings. Here Rothrey mines his previous work but also expands on it, adding a collage of elements from other science fiction films. There are shades of Ex Machina, Silent Running and Solaris with nods to Blade Runner in particular with “empathy tests” for artificial life and a sojourn to a heavily-stylised bar of holograms and bright neon.
The performances are solid, with Theo James maintaining George’s stoicism through his work, but would be served better by a script that allowed for more moments of real love between husband and wife. Stacy Martin is top notch in her three roles as Jules, J2 and J3, with her least-human turn as J2 surprisingly being the standout. Toby Young cameos as an inquisitive Archive agent and is ever reliable. The only misstep is Peter Ferdinando’s Risk Assessor, whose character feels out of place here like he’s dropped in from a deleted League of Gentlemen sketch.
The production design makes the most of its limited locations, with a look rivalling big budget Hollywood. The old future tech is real and functional, mixed with retro nods such as vinyl records and George’s Delorean car. It’s all captured by Laurie Rose’s bold, assured cinematography that elevates the film above standard low to mid budget British films, conveying the sense of isolation of the location, with its retracted drawbridge and foggy, snow covered forests keeping the outside world at bay. Stephen Price’s score is also fantastic. In a year of social realist dramas, it’s pleasing to see a British film with ambition and scope, punching up without a single public funding logo in sight.
With its many cinematic influences and Black Mirror feel, this isn’t the most original take on the AI subgenre, but a genuinely surprising last minute twist turns everything on its head and will have audiences returning for a second watch, viewing everything in a new light. If the release had fallen elsewhere on the calendar, Archive could and should have been seen by audiences on cinema screens, filling the gap left by studios pulling their blockbusters. It’s a promising debut from Gavin Rothrey; entertaining while exploring love, grief, fear of death and the quest for immortality, all wrapped in strong visuals and a beautiful score.