On Making Your Dead Wife a Robot

Stacy Martin in Archive. (Vertical Entertainment)
The cerebral sci-fi film Archive has an intriguing hook.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I magine the line where advanced robotics meets advanced artificial intelligence and you’re picturing a being that might be indistinguishable from a human. Now picture an actual human’s memory and experience, being loaded into the machine. It could even be the mind of a dead person. Maybe even your dead wife.

Archive (just released on VOD) isn’t the first time this idea has come to the screen, but it makes for a reasonably compelling, if chilly, sci-fi tale in the mold of 2015’s Ex Machina. Thirty years in the future, in a remote wilderness suggesting the Pacific Northwest (though it’s actually Japan), a tech genius named George (Theo James) presides over a factory/lab where he is steadily progressing toward creating an advanced artificial human. His problem is that he has gone off-piste from what the corporation funding his research had in mind. One boss (Rhona Mitra) harangues him about his progress via video calls while security enforcers (Toby Jones, Richard Glover) pay him a visit and inform him that he’s breaking all the rules. Nobody quite grasps what George is really up to, which is taking a hard drive containing his dead wife’s memories and loading them into a lifelike robot. We learn much of this in a series of flashback sequences that gradually lay out the backstory between George and his beloved French wife, Jules (Stacy Martin).

Archive, a modestly budgeted first film from former video-game designer Gavin Rothery, works fairly well on its own terms, although its pacing is slow and it isn’t quite what it appears to be. It isn’t particularly deep — nor is it much of a thriller. There’s no effort to get into the implications of philosophical or moral issues; even if we could extend people’s existences by loading their memories into a robot, should we? The original idea George is working with is much more modest: a system that makes it possible to communicate with a screen avatar of a deceased person for up to 200 hours, in order to say goodbye properly.

Though Archive is so slow-moving and drawn-out it might have been a better idea to do it in half the running time, as a single hour of television, the film is spooky and intriguing, and its final beats are especially strong. Until then, though, the parallels to Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s film, are so obvious that Archive comes across as a bit brazen. Both movies revolve around a male tech guru/mad scientist in a secluded forest who in both cases seems to design his female robots around the hopes that they’ll be properly subservient, not getting that once they’re actually self-directed, the robots may have other ideas. The most salient difference is in the caliber of acting: In Ex Machina, the enchanting Alicia Vikander played the robot with aplomb and Oscar Isaac played the tech genius as both arrogant and slightly sinister, whereas in Archive, Martin makes no particular impression as the girl, and James’s scientist is so bland that he makes mayonnaise look like picante sauce. The movie would have been vastly improved by giving George more shadings and by hiring an actor more interesting than James, which is to say virtually any actor on the planet. He is so completely devoid of acting spark that I can’t imagine any future for him that involves requiring him to speak or move. The world needs catalogue models, too. Even given the constraints of low-budget filmmaking, it’s amazing that anyone thought it was a good idea to make a movie in which every scene would build outward from this vacuous lunk.

Partly because his lead actor is vaporware, writer-director Rothery fails to establish the emotional predicate for the story; at no point does the picture capture anything like the anguish of being made unexpectedly and suddenly a widower, one who remains obsessed with the departed. By far the best treatment I’ve seen of the emotional and technological questions raised in this film is Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back,” from season two. By coincidence, it starred Domhnall Gleeson, who was also the third lead actor in Ex Machina, a film I respected but didn’t love as much as most critics. Brooker’s genius is that he is equally fascinated with both the tech side and the human side of his glimpses into the future. Tonally, Brooker manages to be both heartrending and comical in the same piece. Rothery, Archive’s creator, has some way to go before he is fit to be Brooker’s coffee boy, but then again Brooker is one of our most essential storytellers, and few makers of television or film are in his league. Rothery does have potential, and as debut films go, his isn’t bad.

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