In 2020, going to the movies isn’t an option. At least, not for much of the country. Keeping this in mind, a lot of films have gone straight to on-demand, bypassing the theaters completely. Archive is one of them. In a normal year it probably would have been a late-summer film, nothing that’s going to really rock the world. It would have been the kind of film people go to when they just don’t know what to see. And, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Instead, Archive premiered on demand for about a month and can now be found on Prime Video. Most of the reviews you’ll find are from July, but if you’re one of those people who doesn’t rent a lot of movies, you might just now be getting into it. Plus, if you’re like many folks you’ve been watching TV for about 9 months straight and you’re looking for something new to watch.
Archive is a low-stakes watch that wants to remind you of other, more relevant films. The well-versed viewer will enjoy spending time naming the films that inspired this one, from Solaris to Her to Alien to 2001: A Space Odyssey. There’s even a little bit of Back to the Future II inspiration there and a Mission:Impossible subplot that turns out to be a bit of a throwaway.
Our hero, George, is alone in a remote outpost in Japan. His job is to reactivate this outpost, for some reason that is never given. But, little screen time is given to the real reason he’s there. Instead, the film focuses on what ends up being a rather strange hobby.
You see, George is mourning his late wife in a rather odd and unhealthy way. Since a fatal car accident, he has focused on two things. First is a piece of equipment called an Archive, provided by a company called Archive Systems, Inc. [Side note: I worked for a company called Archive Systems, Inc. in the 1980s.] It’s a wonder box that somehow stores a person’s consciousness after they die so you can talk to them for a while. It’s not perfect, and eventually the consciousness fades and you lose the person. So, George’s mission is on a time crunch.
His real goal is to develop an AI in a human-looking body, where he can put the consciousness of his wife, which he can only reach through an Archive. He’s on his third generation, and the results look pretty promising. But the other two generations of AIs are still around, and they don’t like their creator fawning over number three.
And there’s the crux of the plot.
Where this movie succeeds…
This film works in the way it introduces some new questions into the familiar “I built a robot and now there’s a problem with our relationship” trope. This is a very old story that reaches back to the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea; recently it’s been refreshed in films like I, Robot, Her, and Ex Machina. In all that time, it’s never really been asked: What if your AI grew up thinking it was perfect and then another more perfect AI came along? The “02” model is at the emotional and cognitive level of a teenager, and it experiences teenage angst that leads to a somewhat predictable end.
I liked the visual design of this film. Yes, it’s sort of late 1970s but that cements it into a very familiar realm. You’re instantly able to understand what’s going on and you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the futurism.
Where this movie fails…
Unfortunately there’s a lot of extra “stuff” in this movie that makes no sense. Rhona Mitra is criminally underused as George’s boss. The character has so little depth and definition that it’s almost funny. There’s a side plot about some sort of James Bond-like incursion, and a visit from two Archive employees that seems like nothing but an exposition dump.
It’s so derivative of so many movies that it’s hard to feel like it’s worth looking for the new stuff. That’s a shame because there’s a lot that this film brings to the discussion. The heaping helpings of unnecessary plotlines make it hard for you to know where the focus is.
Overall it’s hard to really feel for George, for any of his robot surrogates, or even for his wife who is shown in flashbacks. I don’t know if it’s the writing or the acting, but there’s really nothing terribly distinctive or engaging about this character. This is especially true if you compare him to, sat, Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina.
Probably the biggest problem here is that the film relies heavily on male wish-fulfillment fantasies as if they’re completely acceptable. It doesn’t seem to matter that his wife, who is accessible only through an Archive interface, didn’t want to be archived.
The stuff that really makes no sense
The tone-deaf masculinity gets even worse if you delve into it. George is incredibly insensitive to his first two AI’s, who we are led to believe have intelligence levels similar to human children. He ignores them and at one point salvages one for parts. Yes, they’re only machines. But we’re led to believe that they’re intelligent and have feelings. Nothing really comes of that discussion other than George acting like a jerk.
Finally, there doesn’t seem to be a really sensible reason that George wouldn’t have just built the body he wanted the first time and then just kept upgrading the brain. Having his two prior projects around is convenient for the plot but otherwise doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Here there be spoilers
What you’ll find in Archive is a completely unearned and unnecessary twist ending. The last minute of the film completely upends the rest, and gives you a shock that doesn’t make a lot of sense.
You see, it seems George is the one that didn’t survive, and that he’s living in an Archive while his wife is alive. It’s George’s fading consciousness that frames the ending of the film. There isn’t a lot of foreshadowing that would get you to the ending at all. Probably the only possible hint is that there’s a big “301” on the building, which is internet code for a permanent redirection. Beyond that there’s really nothing to reward the careful viewer. This film would have been much better without that twist, which creates a lot of problems. If you’re to believe that the entire thing is really just an extension of George’s consciousness, then what about the things that happen when he’s not in the room? Do they really happen at all?
Toward the end of the film, George turns into a flat-out villain. His 03 prototype is so advanced, it’s developed its own personality. Yet George wants nothing more than to wipe its mind and put a new consciousness in there. There’s no real time dedicated to the ethical implications of this before 03 simply lays back and agrees to sacrifice itself with a blood-curdling scream.
Worth the time?
If you’re looking to blow an hour and a half on a decently produced movie that will make you think, try out Archive.