Film Review: Theo James Leads Artificial Intelligence Sci-Fi Drama ‘Archive’ ★★★

Gavin Rothery, who collaborated with Duncan Jones on 2009 sci-fi feature Moon, releases his directorial feature debut, Archive. Rothery writes and directs the feature which sees Theo James star alongside Stacy Martin in this speculative, slow-burn science-fiction piece which proves moderately engaging, albeit familiar.

Opening in the year 2038, Archive sees scientist George Almore (James) working on a true human equivalent android in a remote snowy mountain outpost. However, George is driven by the motive of putting the memory of his deceased wife Jules into this Android – prompting some difficult questions about grief, technology, and the idea of AI used as a means of immortality.

Rothery’s tackling of these questions feels intelligent due to the degree of emotional intelligence he pitches the story with. Capturing the bond between George and his fellow robotic companions, the boxy and basic J1 and the slightly more sophisticated and emotive J2 (also voiced by Martin), Rothery explores the concept of humans playing God with AI technology, driven by the desire to make them more realistically human – yet willing to disregard the humanity they instil them with. The struggle between George’s desire to push his technological achievements and to restore the consciousness of his wife comes at the sacrifice of the companions he has already created – this gives the film an impressive emotional edge that draws us in. Impressive voice work from Martin in the role of J2 is integral to this, with the actress adorning the role with a surprising degree of humanity.

Whilst J1 and J2’s hurt at being neglected in favour of George’s new obsession J3 lays the emotional groundwork, Rothery attempts to add more depth by capturing George secretly working on these projects behind the backs of his impatient bosses. There is an undercurrent of tension and dread brought in through this angle, added by a sharp timeframe and veil of secrecy in the narrative. Further unease comes in a subplot where other facilities are being destroyed and this threat looming over George.

Yet there is a sense of familiarity that Archive fails to escape. The idea of reconnecting with the deceased via AI feels very Black Mirror and as the inevitable issues with Jules’ incorporation into robotic form begin to rear their head, Archive follows a very familiar path. Whilst Rothery intelligently presents complex themes of immortality through AI, James’s performance never quite captures the potential depth of these with a degree of emotional detachment being felt.

Rothery’s directorial style is quiet and meditative, managing to make a familiar narrative quietly inviting despite its failure to achieve any profound sense of depth. Much of the feature sees George tinkering away in his lab or outpost with a gentle bond captured between he and his robotic companions – which sadly feels disregarded as the narrative progresses. Flashier set pieces fail to land and feel out of place such as a subplot involving a meeting with an operative named Tagg (Peter Ferdinando).

The contemplative tone is captured through panning landscape and drone shots capturing the snowy outpost filled with slightly dated industrial machinery. This helps add a sense of aesthetic science-fiction realism to Archive regardless of its issues with familiarity and emotional depth.