Story Blocks: Archive (2020)
Whenever I watch a film, I’m always trying to figure out what the intended tone of the Director is and judge it based on that alone.
Whether or not the characters are likeable or there are plot holes or anything like that is secondary to me. If a film has a tone that doesn’t take itself seriously, then plot holes don’t matter. If it’s clearly just a brainless action movie, then thoughtless characters don’t bother me. But if it was directed with the intention of making me bear some heavy emotional weight, then it had better earn that emotional weight by making every action of the characters believable.
Archive, written and directed by Gavin Rothery, clearly wants us to feel heavy emotional weight. For the most part it accomplishes that. The slower pace of the scenes allow us to sit in the thoughts of the characters, even those who only “think” programmatically. The scenery is gorgeous and the many (many) outdoor panning shots can be breathtaking at times (even if there are two or three too many). The characters themselves are endearing and relatable, with the internal conflicts of even the robotic members feeling very familiar.
As the IMDB plot summary describes:
2038: George Almore is working on a true human-equivalent AI. His latest prototype is almost ready. This sensitive phase is also the riskiest. Especially as he has a goal that must be hidden at all costs: being reunited with his dead wife.
But I do have a small problem with the film, for all its great characters and beautiful cinematography, and for that I’ll have to jump into spoiler territory.
The Problem – They Didn’t Earn the Ending #
Let me start off by saying that the film was a joy to watch. It really did have some emotional moments that were surprising to me, and you owe it to yourself to watch the movie if you haven’t already before you read any further. The big twist ending is a nice surprise that left a lot of people stunned, including me, so you don’t want that spoiled for you.
All clear? Good. Let’s move on.
It is that twist ending that I don’t entirely feel was earned through the rest of the film. It comes quickly and without warning, and the payoff of going in deep with the characters during earlier scenes seems rushed here. George’s final brief moments on screen don’t carry any emotional heft to them, and we aren’t left wondering if we missed the glaringly obvious clues about the eventual twist. Because, well… there weren’t any. Or at least, there weren’t many, and the clues that existed don’t really matter much.
Hopefully that paragraph of being a bit vague was enough to push off the stragglers who haven’t seen the film yet from spoiling it too much for themselves. From here on out, we’re getting detailed.
There’s no confusion that George is actually the one who was dead from the beginning of the film, and not his wife that he was trying to reincarnate as a robot. The entire time we were worried that George was running out of time to transfer his wife’s consciousness out of the Archive systems, and we really should have been worried about how George would react when he found out the truth.
But he didn’t react, and neither could we, because the reveal was so brief and forced that my shock was almost immediately suppressed. We jumped from George and his faithful robots out into the real world with characters we barely knew, and we didn’t care about what they felt because we hadn’t been with them. George, J1, and J3 were the characters we wanted to see impacted by this revelation, but we didn’t get that satisfaction. Instead, a goodbye from George’s unknown baby and the sad echo of footsteps in an empty hall were all that told us that this was supposed to be a sad moment.
sigh…. if only we could actually have the satisfaction of that sadness.
Well, I believe we can, and all it will take is two small changes in the film to make that ending really deliver a punch.
Change 1: The Robots Knew the Truth #
One of the issues I had with the film was that besides asking, “How could it be better?”, I had no reason to think more about the film and its intended message. It’s not like The Sixth Sense or Fight Club where we can look back for clues and realize that we should have guessed the twist ending all along. There’s nothing really to keep the conversation of the audience going long into the following week, and that’s what I’d like to fix with both of my proposed changes.
The first change I would make takes a page from Fight Club and plants clues throughout the entirety of the movie that would make a rewatch exciting. What if George’s three robot Julia’s knew the truth all along? What if, in their empathy for him, they were just playing along to try and give him a purpose in his final days in the Archive?
One of the most gripping conflicts of the story surrounds J2, the mid-grade robot that had the mind of a 15 year old. She consistently is pining for the approval of George, who often dismisses her with stern comments and demands for her to go do some other task somewhere else. I genuinely felt sad for her emotional state, and laughed out loud when George deservedly received a sassy “You’re welcome” from the first few minutes after her introduction.
But when she died, the emotional ties I had to her in those moments were weak. The forced delivery of that scene didn’t really fit the tone of the rest of the movie, and I chuckled to myself that the writer wanted me to cry or something at a robot drowning itself.
What if we changed up J2’s reason for going into that water a bit? We can still show that she was depressed and desperately looking for affection from George, but we can switch it from an act of teenage angst to a further desire to help George find peace. If the three J robots all knew the truth, and there were hints at this throughout the film that they were trying to help him through his denial, the twist ending could have been incredibly powerful as all of our beloved characters realized they’d failed.
George is trapped in this isolated forest, except for one scene where he goes to a sushi bar to meet with someone (a scene I would cut from the film). J2, seeing the self-destruction of her creator, wants nothing more than to make him happy again and break him out of the box. So she leaves the facility, goes to the edge of the forest, and tries to shatter the illusion of the box and free George from the Archive. It can still look the same way in the moment so that the audience doesn’t suspect the twist ending entirely, but give us reason to go back and watch again to see how the real story is playing out with these robots who know the truth, under the surface layer of George’s attempts to revive his wife.
Suddenly, we are confronted with why the robots are acting the way they are: J3 is trying to learn to dance so that George can relive a moment of joy from his past life. J2 is pleading with him to give her another chance to count the modules to show him that he’s making progress in teaching her, giving him purpose for continuing the task. J1 offers to be erased so that the real Julia can live in her body because she knows that none of it is real and just wants George to feel like he’s accomplished his greatest desire.
Maybe that was the Director’s intended meaning behind the film the entire time. Unfortunately, I don’t think that was communicated particularly well on the screen, so most reviews I’m reading make no mention of these ideas at all.
Change 2: The Guessing Game #
With the ending as it was, it feels like the Director wanted our heads to be spinning with the visual spectacle of the Archive shutting down as we tried to piece together what exactly was happening. Sadly, that effect wasn’t manifested. At least not for me. As soon as Julia uttered the broken words confirming that George had died and was living in the Archive, there was nothing left to spin.
Let’s change that by making a small tweak to how the ending played out.
J3 is standing there and does exactly the same things as before, but instead of a bleach-white robotic skin tone and black lines across her face, she’s put on makeup. Good looking makeup, too, that makes her look perfectly natural and human. George, meanwhile, was sprayed with some white fluids on his face from when he used an axe to smash a box, and he’s looking a bit unnatural for it.
As George stands at the Archive just like in the film and hears his wife start to say those fateful words on the phone, guards break into the room and drag him away. The phone falls as she speaks the truth for the audience to hear, but George cannot. There’s screaming and yelling as he fights to get back to his wife that he believes is fading away. The guards tell him that his time is up and his crazed look makes him totally inhuman. J3 blows him a kiss as a drop of liquid falls down her cheek to a smile, making her both pained and relieved that his fight would soon be over.
Or does that smile mean something else?
The audience would be left spinning exactly how the Director hoped we would.
Is George actually dead and his wife Julia on the phone is telling him the truth?
Was George actually the robot all along and now we’re finally seeing the reality that J3 was his creator and he was an out of control android being led to decommission?
Did J3 orchestrate this entire sub-plot of the company coming to arrest George so that she could escape the facility and live like a human?
Obviously there would need to be some other minor adjustments to the story to make an outcome like this plausible, but as an armchair film critic it’s my duty to pitch ideas and see where they land.
What Do You Think? #
I am not a Director or Writer. My job here of coming up with ways to “improve” a film is an easy one. I don’t have budgets and crews and deadlines to work with like Gavin did. But maybe with these two changes your minds will be sparked with inspiration in how to tell your own stories, or interpret the films you enjoy in different ways.
Archive was a decent flick. Every futuristic sci-fi movie with robots doesn’t need to have huge explosions or crazy fight scenes to create an engaging universe. Archive does all of that and more with a low budget and small cast. It’s definitely worth a rental if you like these sorts of thoughtful movies, but I don’t think it’s necessarily worth a rewatch.
Perhaps I’m wrong, though. In which case, I’m sure your comments (or a phone call from the deceased) will clear that all up for me in a whirlwind of excitement.