The world of cinema and TV is filled with robots. The last few years in particular have exploded with stories about androids, cyborgs, battlebots, synths, mechas, hosts, life model decoys, jaegars, blanks, chronicoms and for old times sake replicants and Terminators.
This week two more films have rolled off this busy production line and so the question has to be, is there anything new and advanced here or is it all a little rusty?
Well the answer is no, there is nothing particularly new going on with these movies but while in one case this does mean that the batteries run out fairly early on though, in the other the shiny casing and fluid mechanics ensure that everything remains impressively functional.
The first of these two movies, Outside the Wire, is on Netflix and it is as though three years of quality programming from the streaming service never happened. The film is typical of the high ambition, mid cost, low quality features that used to be typical on Netflix before they signed up directors like Alfonso Cuarón, Aaron Sorkin, Paul Greengrass, Martin Scorsese and Noah Baumbach. There are well executed episodes within the film but none of it is joined up with any sophistication and it does feel very derivative of other films, both those with robots and without.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that the whole robot element is largely irrelevant. Anthony Mackie plays Leo, a tough no nonsense Captain fighting for justice in a futuristic Eastern European war zone. He also just happens to be entirely mechanical. He looks human and he acts human but he’s not. His true nature isn’t even that tied into the plot. I’ve said in the past that a Christmas film isn’t really a Christmas film if you can remove all seasonal aspects and references and still have a workable story. A similar things applies here because this is a robot film that wouldn’t actually be that different if you took out the fact that one of the characters was a robot. Imagine trying to do that with Blade Runner, A.I or even Alien.
I commend the film for its attempt to mash together different genres (and the fact that it choses to have two black leads) but it all just feels a little incomplete. There is a twist near the end that plays on cliche too. Seriously, if the characters in the movie had ever seen a single robot film or a war flick then they wouldn’t have been surprised by it at all.
Archive, which is available on iTunes, feels like a bit of a blend of filmic conventions too but whereas Outside the Wire is heavy handed with its influences, this movie does interesting things with them.
This time the robot is key to what is essentially a love a story with both sci-fi and espionage thriller trappings. Theo James plays a scientist who lives in an isolated forest location where he is secretly working on building the world’s most advanced robot. So far it sounds a lot like Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, the robot even comes in female form, but there are other forces watching him whose motives do not appear supportive of the project. Also his own motivations are also totally different from those of Oscar Isaac in Garland’s brilliant film as he isn’t building his bot for arrogant or financial reasons, he is trying to bring back his dead wife.
While this itself is reminiscent of the Keanu Reeves movie Replicas or even parts of Westworld, it does take the opportunity to do things we’ve not seen before. It might be little but powerful moments like the panicked scream his spouse lets out on waking up in a synthetic body or larger elements as with how the woman’s consciousness is copied and put into multiple versions of herself, all at different levels of cognitive and technological development but existing simultaneously in the same space. This latter aspect in particular creates an interesting relationship between the creator and his creations which is more parental than the set up would suggest and more than he is clearly comfortable with.
The design and direction from Gavin Rothery is special too. There is a montage scene that would normally be a knowing or lazy shortcut to storytelling but it works in this setting, especially once you’ve seen the end of the film. The movie also looks great as you might expect from the a man who, while he is calling the shots on his first feature, is an experienced art director who worked with Duncan Jones on Moon. There is a lovely android dance scene too, that once again both compares and contrasts with a similar moment in Ex Machina.
The Ripley Factor:
Emily Beecham plays a resistance leader in Outside the Wire who is a formidable woman but underwritten and quite secondary to the plot. Again Archive wins out here. Stacy Martin is charming as the characterful and bold Jules and captivating as J. Mark II, III and IV. The gender politics are interesting as ever when a man is creating a woman but he is doing this not to have power over her but because of the power she has over him. Theirs is certainly an unequal relationship though with the balance going his way but while he is dominant and sometimes unkind, he is still a slave to the ‘women’ around him. He appears to need them more than they need him, at least once he’s made them some legs. It is a contradictory and fascinating dynamic and one that is turned on its head in the closing minutes.
I’m going to get into this ending a little more so if you’ve not seen Archive then stop reading now.
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Okay, so at the end we discover that it isn’t Jules whose consciousness is archived in the machine at all, it is his. He was the one that died in the car crash and the whole story is his death fantasy as what is left of him degrades and expires. Learning that this is his fantasy, subconscious or otherwise, does arguably show him to have some heavily chauvinistic tendencies. He dreams of being the creator and master of a subordinate version of his wife and the role of his daughter is taken by more incarnations of her, only reinforcing his disinclination or fear of sharing an equal parental role. Maybe it is his guilt at putting his career over his wife’s wishes, maybe it is his desire to make his marriage and his job work together but he’s working through something here and there is certainly a great deal you can read into it. If he is sexist though the film is not. In the end, after we see him striving to give her a life, Jules is the survivor who lives and she does it without him. It’s given me pause for thought.
By contrast, I don’t really remember what happened at the end of Outside the Wire.