Monday 18 January 2021

Men and motors: "Archive"

Archive is a movie only a born tinkerer could make, bolted together as it has been from scraps and offcuts of more immediately prominent SF movies. Nothing has been reinvented in this process, exactly, but it runs enough current across its circuit boards to get up and running, and generates enough juice to keep itself going where several not dissimilar, higher-profile projects have gone haywire or packed up altogether. The tinkerer-in-chief is Gavin Rothery, previously a VFX supervisor on Duncan Jones's Moon, and he's emerged from his shed with a riff on the lonely-spaceman subgenre. Theo James, bedecked with specs (ergo: brainy) and stubble (ergo: hunky, mind), is George, an engineer found circling a modernist retreat in the snowy forests of future-Japan, where he's been dispatched by his employers to develop a response to a background security crisis. He has assistance in this task, in the form of two robot helpers who resemble, respectively, one of the Silent Running droids and Kryten from Red Dwarf; in a throwback touch that immediately endeared Archive to this viewer, these are played by performers in robot outfits. Yet George is distracted by an ongoing pet project: constructing a sleek, A.I.-enabled android as a repository for the spirit of his wife Jules (Stacy Martin), with whom he shares increasingly distant videocalls. As we join him, he's halfway there, with the android suspended, as yet legless, from a ceiling-mounted harness. Archive is almost too slick and wipe-clean to acknowledge the fact - in the Before Times, we'd have described it as "multiplex-ready" - but it is, on some essential level, a film about a dude building himself a sex robot.

Rothery, thankfully, has grander designs - including, perhaps, building himself a lasting career in high-end sci-fi. As a debut feature, Archive amply demonstrates its maker's ability to take a modest budget (although picked up by Universal for release, it was shot independently, in the forests of Hungary) and ensure every penny is on screen, put towards the creation of a convincingly busy universe. And there's a lot going on here; Rothery's best decision was to give himself the space he needs to dissect his own ideas. He works hard early on to suggest that George's computer-controlled fortress - a forward projection of Bluebeard's castle, or Du Maurier's Manderlay - has rooms and wings beyond those communal areas the camera initially scans. Occasional forays into the protagonist's headspace, meanwhile, indicate that George - whose light facial scarring isn't explained for some while - has hidden, either untapped or suppressed memories; some of these result in passing nightmares while we wait for the film's masterplan to be revealed. As if all that wasn't enough, on a ground level, those lumbering robo-prototypes, on which our protagonist once lavished such care and attention, are becoming jealous of their high-definition, far more sculpted, thoroughly aerodynamic "sister". As with much of the best SF, its core lies within earthly reach: we're watching a story about a man struggling to manage his relationships, and coming to realise the damage that follows from putting women into boxes.

Once he's established this stronghold, and its chief resident's psyche, as having weakspots, Rothery submits them to a sustained probing of his own - another process, and one that could have seemed inelegant, were it not for the assured pace of the storytelling, and the visual polish being applied at every stage. (Rothery also served an apprenticeship in various art departments; it shows.) Laurie Rose, one of our finest cinematographers (Sightseers, London Spy, Summerland), lends the exteriors a wintry beauty commensurate with the chill of a cautionary tale, and he and Rothery make the robotics - whether analogue, CG or acted - a source of genuine fascination. (To some extent, they've fashioned an entire movie out of the opening sequence of Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, a crashlanded UFO of a film that still seems as dense with ideas and ripe for reappropriation as it did on first release.) What's crucial to its success is the balance Rothery strikes between the organic and the man-made; I whisper this quietly, given the prevailing critical orthodoxy, but I felt he did a far better job of that than Alex Garland did in the course of 2014's thematically adjacent Ex Machina. Between the gadgetry here, there lurks such eminent human interest as a flashback that develops from the sight of the flesh-and-blood Martin devouring a doughnut, and you'll be able to see for yourself why that might linger long in anybody's memory. (Especially once you realise where that scene is heading.) As Rothery correctly realises, those grace notes would take a lifetime of tinkering to replicate.

Archive is now available to rent via Prime Video.

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