The year is 2038, and strange things are happening at a robotics factory deep in the snowy woods of Japan. Research scientist George Almore (Theo James), who lives here alone on a three-year corporate contract, is working to develop "human equivalent" artificial intelligence, something to be installed in a robot that would obliterate the boundary between human beings and machines. But George is also secretly embarked on a side project of his own—he wants to insert the spirit of his dead wife Jules (Stacy Martin), whom he lost in a car crash, into one of these next-gen AI entities.
George's employers know nothing of this covert undertaking, even though they enabled it. It was the company that gave him an Archive—a sort of digital post-death waiting room for departing souls—and installed his late wife's mortal essence in it. But companionship was all they had in mind, something to make George's solitary days more bearable. This setup has enabled him to actually talk to Jules via a link into the Archive (where she's understandably weirded out by her current existential state) while he prepares to transmigrate her to new digs. He'll have to be quick about it, though—Jules's broadcast signal is growing weak, because what is left of her is slowly fading into the past altogether. And George has encountered disturbing new problems himself.
Archive, a first feature by writer-director Gavin Rothery, deals with a familiar sci-fi theme—the elusive nature of being human. But the movie's elegant execution makes the old mysteries feel fresh again. Rothery, a longtime video-game designer (and visual-effects supervisor on the 2009 movie Moon), delivers on every level. This is the film that should finally propel James (of the Divergent movies) and the Anglo-French Martin (Vox Luxe) into full stardom. (James has a solid leading-man presence here, and Martin carries off what amounts to two separate roles with very different kinds of energy.) The movie should also provide bracing career bumps for cinematographer Laurie Rose (for his gorgeous, color-drained cinematography) and composer Steven Price (for his entrancing electro-romantic score). Not least, Rothery has also provided a pretty great plot twist that you might not see coming from three feet away. (Well, I speak for myself.)
George may live alone, but not in the customary sense. He shares a spacious workplace with two of his early robots. The first of these experimental machines, the boxy J-1, has the intellectual capabilities of a six-year-old human, and offers little in the way of company. The other robot, however—J-2—is a talkative teenager with easily ruffled emotions. George is fond of this pair, but his attention tends to wander. He's never gotten around to giving J-1 a pair of arms, for instance, and he's lost interest in updating J-2. Now, once again, he's preoccupied with something new—creating a third robot to become a home for the disembodied Jules. This latest creature—J-3—is currently little more than a head and a torso suspended in his workshop (where she strongly recalls the robot Maria in Metropolis). But it looks like she might become the first bot that George actually perfects—although if he does, he'll be the only one who's happy about it. "I thought we were a team," J-2 grumbles. "Why don't you keep working on me?"
George's unfinished robots are key to the movie's charm—they can be touchingly funny one moment and break your heart the next. (There's a wonderful shot of J-2, alone on a rocky promontory, gazing up at a towering waterfall in a beautifully composed machine reverie.) And as J-3 nears completion, evolving from a basic vessel for the disoriented Jules into a blonde-wigged near-beauty, Martin brings her alive with jittery quirks and unexpected edges. ("Will you finish building me?" she asks George pointedly.)
Despite all the robot distraction, it eventually becomes clear that something is fundamentally wrong in this world. Little things—numbers, locations—don't add up. There's an awfully odd visit by a pair of inspectors from the Archive company (Toby Jones and Richard Glover), and a bizarre encounter with a company "risk assessor" (Peter Ferdinando) in a barroom replete with hazy air, neon glow and Japanese atmospherics that would fit snugly into the original Blade Runner. (Director Rothery is fluent in sci-fi visual languages, offering nods to Alien and The Bride of Frankenstein as well.)
As George's world grows more unstable, we share his desperation and his mounting paranoia. Already stressed by whatever it is that's happening all around him, how is he supposed to feel when his beloved J-3 levels her eyes at him and asks, "Are you going to build a J-4?"