George Almore (Theo James) is closing in on human-equivalent artificial intelligence. Sequestered in an ancient and dilapidated bunker deep in the boondocks of the Japanese countryside, he splits his time between the project that is the focus of his life and keeping the shelter running. Facing the constant interruptions of routine maintenance, micromanaging from his superiors, and possible terrorist attacks, George struggles to not only make progress but hide it as well. The answer to why he’d do that is one of the major plot points and cause of dramatic tension in Archive.
Archive proves to be quite the rare beast: an intellectual sci-fi film that is not only watchable but enjoyable. Writer-director Gavin Rothery, in his feature-length debut, isn’t breaking any new story or conceptual ground. What he does do, however, is bring a fresh take to familiar tropes. Rothery infuses a common tale with new life and vitality by sewing the discarded bits of other films together, like a mad scientist, in order to fashion something new.
Archive touches upon human anxieties, mortality, and the ever blurring line between humans and machines. While the movie itself is riddled with clichés, you don’t really notice them. They are presented in such an entertaining way and are used differently enough not to be bothersome. Plus, absolutely all the more potentially problematic story beats are explained away in the third act.
“…splits his time between the project that is the focus of his life and keeping the shelter running.”
One of the first things you’ll notice about Archive is its retro-futuristic feel. The art design has a very 1980s aesthetic, which helps convey just how old this bunker is. But at the same time, everything makes sense. The whole compound looks not only lived in, but like it would work.
Compared to other genre films, this might feel a little slow. But, the intentionally deliberate pacing slowly pulls you into the story. Unlike many sci-fi films, Archive doesn’t contain an info dump. No annoying narrator droning on about the world they live in, how it came to this, why they want to create A.I., and who the bad guys are. None of that. Instead, you’re introduced to the world in tiny bits, like the Parable of the Elephant. And because Archive trusts its audience to follow the dramatic threads, it all feels real.
Theo James and Rhona Mitra, who plays a crucial role I don’t dare reveal, are both amazing. Genre fans will recognize them from other, more mainstream works, but here they are given very meaty roles. And oddly enough, most of their best work has nothing to do with dialog or line delivery. Where they and this movie shine is in what the characters aren’t saying. In the little moments between two people where a look or a gesture is all that is needed.
Gavin Rothery understands that filmmaking is a visual medium. The story of Archive is told through pictures as much as dialogue. In some of the most effective and integral scenes, no one is talking. Archive is an old story told well. If you get the chance, I highly recommend you watch it.
Archive screened at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival.
"…trusts its audience to follow the dramatic threads..."