There’s a lot to love about Gavin Rothery’s debut movie Archive, a chilly but rich science-fiction movie about a roboticist struggling with a secret project to recreate his dead wife. The design is fabulous — Rothery is credited as the conceptual designer and a visual-effects supervisor on Duncan Jones’ Moon, and Archive features a lot of the same lived-in, detail-oriented environmental aesthetic, plus richly ambitious outdoor camerawork. The character work is excellent, particularly the subtle efforts to humanize the roboticist’s abandoned project, J2 (Stacy Martin), an artificial intelligence that stopped developing around a teenager’s level of brain development.
And there’s an impressively rich world behind the story, with a lot of little details suggesting a corporate war going on in the background, an impressive range of future-tech, and an interesting global economy. So why does Rothery’s script pitch all of that out the window at the last second, when the buildup was so sophisticated and impressive?
[Ed. note: the following reveals the ending of Archive.]
How is Archive’s ending set up?
Theo James stars as George Almore, the technologist who’s trying to resurrect his dead wife Jules (also Martin) in robot form. Jules died in a car crash years ago just after learning she was pregnant, so George simultaneously lost his wife and child. But he has Jules’ personality stored in an archive, a forbidding black cabinet that recalls the obelisks in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The archive lets him have video chats with Jules, or at least a visual and mental simulation of her as she was in life. But as an unctuous representative (Toby Jones) of the company that designed the archives reminds George, the archives break down over time, and Jules is fast approaching the moment where she’ll only be capable of making one last goodbye call.
The archive appears to be proprietary technology, and the company reps who visit George to check up on archive-Jules are outraged to see that he’s clearly tampered with his device, presumably because he’s been making copies of her digital self and putting them into robots — the boxy, mute J1, the sweetly lonely J2, and now the sophisticated, near-human J3 (Martin a third time). They plan to sue his tech company out of existence.
Meanwhile, his boss Simone (Rhona Mitra) is furious to find George has been hiding J2 and J3’s development, to keep their company from seizing and studying his projects before he can figure out how to resurrect Jules. And J2 is jealous of J3, who is taking up all George’s affection and attention, so she starts sabotaging J3’s development. This all creates a great deal of external pressure on George.
So how does Archive end?
George does eventually perfect J3. She looks almost completely human. She has human-equivalent senses and emotions. She’s gradually rediscovering Jules’ memories, and Jules’ love for George. But forces unknown — possibly George’s company, possibly the archive company, possibly the mysterious corporate raiders teased as a threat — arrive on George’s doorstep and start cutting their way into his home. Faced with an end to the experiment, and either jail time or death, George abruptly tries to force J3 to agree to being erased, so he can overwrite her with archive-Jules and finally get his wife back.
In the moment, this development doesn’t make much sense. Every lead-up to this reveal suggested that J3 already is archive-Jules, that George was making copies of her that slowly developed over time. J1 stopped developing at an emotional and intellectual age of about 5, and J2 stopped as a teenager, but J3 reached adulthood, and is clearly still becoming more like Jules every day. When George wants J3 to submit to being erased, the development comes with no new information that would clarify how J3 isn’t like Jules, or what new thing he’s expecting out of this point of the experiment. It’s confusing, and all the more so for the way it’s rushed because of the invisible invaders who are about to breach their lab.
But after a token protest, J3 agrees to “die” so Jules can be reborn, and George downloads the archive into her. J3 wakes up seemingly with Jules’ full memories and personality, but suddenly, an old-school phone handset built into the side of the archive starts ringing. Against J3’s advice, George answers it — and finds himself talking to Jules. Turns out he’s the one who’s dead and inside an archive, and now he’s failing. In the real world, Jules and their child (who also survived the car crash) are saying their final goodbyes to George before his digital personality goes to sleep permanently. After real-Jules hangs up on him, she walks away, carrying their young child. Roll credits!
What a twist! What’s the problem?
Among other things, this ending comes almost completely out of nowhere. It does appear to explain the moment where the attackers outside George’s door suddenly, magically disappear — apparently nothing in his posthumous digital realm is real, so it doesn’t have to be consistent? But it never feels like the payoffs of the best twist movies. In movies like Moon itself, the big reveal suddenly invites viewers to re-evaluate everything that’s happened so far, and helps them make sense out of existing mysteries. In Archive, the final reveal just feels like a door abruptly slamming shut on a good story, with a “Gotcha!”
Certainly the end of Archive has an emotional impact — it’s easy to respond viscerally to the sudden realization that everything a protagonist has been through, all the pain he’s caused and endured, has been some form of illusion. After getting so intimately involved in George’s struggle, it’s baffling to learn that none of it means anything, and he has no way out. George is far from a sympathetic protagonist, but it’s still startling to see him so instantly and utterly undone.
But the moment raises a thousand frustrating questions. Does George really “die” at the end of the movie, with his consciousness permanently disappearing, or does he just disappear back into the elaborate dream he was already having? Does the elaborate fantasy that constitutes most of the movie’s action have anything to do with why or how archives fail — that is, do all archived personalities just fall into their own created worlds and stop acknowledging the outside real world? This final moment could practically be the beginning of a new, entirely different movie, one that either mirrors the false archive world in all those intriguing details, or has a completely different setting. We’re left with no clear idea of what the actual world is like, as well as no idea where the archive world goes from here.
And on top of all the disappointments about George’s plotline, J2’s story is wasted as well. Why spend so much time setting her up as an antagonist and a sympathetic figure in order to cavalierly dispose of her? Archive makes J2 a deeply relatable character, and her end is heartbreaking. Inconsolable because George has abused and abandoned her, she walks into a lake in an attempt at self-destruction, and presumably dies. George doesn’t even notice — she gets just a single offhand mention later in the movie, and it doesn’t come from him.
Above all, though — what does the “he was dead all along” reveal mean for the characters we’ve spent so much time investing in emotionally? We barely get to see George’s reaction to learning he’s been archived, and from his brief, blank response, it’s unclear whether it even sinks in. We don’t know real-world Jules well enough as a person to gauge her reaction to anything. We don’t know what it means to J3 to have existed and then to have sacrificed herself, because the endgame is so hurried. There’s no sense of catharsis or conclusion in Archive, just the sense that a rich, vibrant, complicated world has been snuffed out in an instant, as if none of it ever mattered.
That’s an apt and powerful metaphor for death, and the disappearance of a human mind, with all its thoughts and memories. But it’s not a very satisfying conclusion to what had the potential to be a thoroughly excellent movie, not just in the lead-up, but in the payoff.
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