The best sci-fi movie of 2020 was inspired by a computer meltdown
Writer-director Gavin Rothery takes us inside the twists and turns of Archive, and what its shocking ending really means.
Archive began when Gavin Rothery lost everything. Literally.
In October 2011, Rothery was the visual effects director for a London advertising agency when his two home computers simultaneously crashed. His life's work up until that point, including the work he did for the 2009 sci-fi Moon with Duncan Jones, was lost due to hard drive failure.
"That was a real kick in the guts," Rothery tells Inverse. "I was in a weird place for days. I was stressed out."
Rothery's shock felt like mourning. Soon, it planted a seed of a unique sci-fi story about love and loss.
"I had the idea of an A.I. that became self-aware and the only thing it was interested in was killing itself," he says. Upon chewing over the idea more, Rothery found the story that would become his first feature film, Archive.
A new science-fiction thriller, Rothery's movie explores love and death as "universal constants that touch all of us."
In Archive, robotics scientist George (Theo James) races to create true artificial intelligence. Unbeknown to his superiors, George is actually working to create a new body for the limited, digitized consciousness of his dead wife, Jules (Stacy Martin).
Though a love story, technology's fickle habit to evolve brings forth a key emotion that looms over the film: jealousy.
In Archive, George's first two experiments, "J1" and "J2," are (adorably) boxy robots who assist their creator in his laboratory. Upon the completion of George's third and most human-like prototype yet, "J3," jealousy brews inside the laboratory.
"I set out to write a story about love," Rothery says. "What I actually created is about replacement. Jealousy just fit really well within the narrative."
From Moon to Archive, and many projects in between, Rothery demonstrates a taste for science fiction that eschews the clean lines and soft edges of Star Trek for the layers and hard edges of pulp novels and anime.
"I come from an art background," he says. "My original interest in science fiction was by my dad."
“I was always art first”
Mr. Rothery, Gavin's father, had shelves of paperback novels, and the young filmmaker would gaze at their covers. He imagined the stories those books told before he could actually read.
"I was always art first,'" Rothery says. "I'm all about the art because the art thinks for me. It's not just about the pretty picture. There's balance, composition, light volume. It snuck in and became my aesthetic."
But Archive's most charming characters, J1 and J2, take Rothery's love for art to the next level. Created by Rothery in 3D and brought to life by his art department, the robots of Archive were performed by ex-Cirque du Soleil performer Timea Kinga Maday (as J2) and Chris Schubert (as J1), who had built the costume of J1 himself.
"Any robot you see is an actor in costume," he says. "Even though I have a VFX background, working with practical film-making tools, I feel very happy in that space."
"I wanted to cast girls in all the suits because they're playing girls," Rother says. "But the J1 suit wasn't as mobile and flexible as we were promised. Chris was the only person that could walk in them. He had this technique down for how to move because he built it."
The robots gave Rothery headaches during filming, both out of fear that the actors would hurt themselves and because he only had one version of each costume. The first-time director looked to sci-fi legend George Lucas for inspiration on how to work with actors in clunky robot costumes.
"It's incredible how many times R2-D2 and C-3PO have fallen over," Rothery says.
The set's lighting, primarily made to light the film for cinematographer Laurie Rose, doubled as hazard lights to help the suit actors move around the set.
"We didn't have a fall. But that was my big worry during shooting," Rother says, adding that Archive's tiny budget also forced him to emulate the tricks of early science fiction filmmakers. "I've not been given $200 million to do anything. So I'm making films in the old school techniques of the '70s and '80s."
Archive's ending, explained
Warning: Spoilers for the end of Archive ahead.
Archive ends with a twist: It's not George's wife who died in the car accident, which takes place before the events of the movie. It was George who died, his solitary laboratory is a simulation that is running out of time. Jules is alive and well, raising their daughter in the real world.
"I really wanted to do something significant with the archives," Rothery says.
The original ending for Archive was, in fact, to reveal Jules' death and archival. But Rothery changed that to become the basis of the story rather than its twist ending. It was then that he came up with George's fate.
"Having [Jules] dead inside the archives is the first thing you think of for the ending," Rothery says. "I set myself the challenge of chucking away what would have been the big reveal too early in the film and still anchor around the archive in a significant way. You burn through the tropes and hopefully it leads to more interesting places."
Rothery offers audiences going into Archive for a second watch a clue to watch for. When J2 observes a painting of a geisha, it is foreshadowing who is actually dead. "The geisha is the last thing George sees as his life flashes before his eyes. You'll only get that at the end of the film when the archive burns down. Look for the geisha."
Archive is available now on Video on Demand.