In “Archive,” an isolated scientist methodically pursues an artificial-intelligence ideal, developing a sequence of human-android beings and recycling their various parts until the ultimate prototype is achieved. In his handsome debut feature, writer-director Gavin Rothery follows a similarly nifty process of assembly and reassembly, repurposing elements from assorted sci-fi successes — a bit of “Ex Machina” here, some stray “Black Mirror” pieces there — to form a fluent, functional one of his particular design. The sleek result, like the scientist’s hi-tech Frankenstein creation, impressively looks and sounds the part, without quite having a soul of its own. That’s enough to make “Archive” a compelling calling card for the British freshman, with the promise of more advanced models to come.
Originally set to premiere at this year’s pandemic-disrupted South By Southwest festival, “Archive” goes on digital release tomorrow Stateside, where it’ll count on fans of former “Divergent” franchise star Theo James to pick it out from virtual shelves of similarly marketed, if less classily executed, genre fare. Even if this minimalist, languidly paced brooder is a world away from YA fantasy, the faithful are unlikely to be disappointed by what turns out to be the British thesp’s most generous and demanding film assignment to date: Much of “Archive” is practically a one-man show, carried stoically by James’ lone-wolf protagonist alongside a trio of androids voiced (and increasingly embodied) by Stacy Martin.
As we encounter him, certainly, robots whiz George Almore does not seem to be much of a people person. Sequestered away in a high-security tech lab in the snow-licked Japanese mountains — the film was shot on location in Hungary, but it’s a ravishingly severe backdrop either way — he’s nearing the end of a three-year research project to develop a progressively more advanced android, with the physique and mental capacity of an adult woman. His first two prototypes, J1 and J2, took a boxy, mechanical robot form, and mentally stalled at the levels of a human toddler and adolescent, respectively.
The third, however, appears more womanly in every way, building a relationship with her creator more tender and emotionally charged than one might typically expect between a scientist and his experiment. As the film piles up fleeting flashbacks to George’s former, less secluded life, it won’t take viewers long to twig that each of George’s androids has been modelled on his late wife Jules (Martin), and that the goal of his research is the closest thing to resurrection that AI technology will permit.
If this revelation is easily seen coming, the psychological fallout is more volatile and surprising. If plenty of films have pondered the question of whether robots can feel love, “Archive” is rather more intriguing when it mines subtler, distinctly human tensions between the sibling-like androids themselves: Plagued by insecurity and jealousy as she senses her creator’s attentions drifting to his latest model, J2 may well be the most complex character here, to say nothing of the most sympathetic.
Rothery’s terse, deliberate script opens up more avenues of inquiry than it fully pursues. In a manner that recalls the far more grandly scaled, notionally existential sci-fi romance “Passengers,” the troubling gender politics of George’s research, in its drive to create and control female bodies at a fundamental life-and-death level, are cautiously raised but never confronted — at least until a late-breaking narrative left turn that leaves further queries in its wake. This is richer, more involving terrain than a tedious, opaque subplot regarding George’s surveillance by his brisk, remote supervisor (Rhona Mitra), as well as various shadowy villains (including a scarcely used Toby Jones) attempting to intrude on his very private project: plot points designed to kick this otherwise contemplative, mood-driven puzzler into high-stakes thriller gear, though they slow things down more than they amp things up.
When Rothery’s storytelling stalls, however, his filmmaking keeps things crisp and involving. A former graphic designer and visual effects supervisor on such titles as Duncan Jones’ “Moon,” he shares production design duties here with Robin Lawrence, and their elegant, budget-conscious world-building is largely what keeps proceedings subtly credible.
Set in 2038, “Archive” convincingly jumbles eras of futurism, as somewhat quaint old-school robotics give way to more uncannily sinuous forms. Cinematographer Laurie Rose, a regular Ben Wheatley collaborator, paints it all in serene, frozen silvers, shifting to garish electric neons as the outside world intrudes on George’s secluded techno-shrine. “Gravity” composer Steven Price’s score, meanwhile, blends sparse strings and glassy synths, reflecting the marriage of human touch and metallic industrial sheen in George’s mad-scientist meddlings.