Gavin Rothery has been around science fiction long enough to know that even when a story is set physically in the future, it needs to have psychological roots in the present.
The British native carried that philosophy throughout his directorial debut, Archive, a story of love and loss involving emotionally vulnerable humans and artificially intelligent robots.
“So many sci-fi films are about saving the Earth. That kind of stuff leaves me quite cold,” Rothery said. “I wanted to play with love and death, because we all experience that. I wanted to keep it personal as much as I could.”
The film is set in 2038, when genetics researcher and roboticist George (Theo James) is isolated in a remote Japanese research facility, ostensibly working on an android prototype that can enable temporary reanimation of the deceased — like his late wife, for example. Some technical issues coincide with his supervisors discovering his ulterior motives, jeopardizing his chance to complete the project.
Rothery has been working as an illustrator and graphic designer for comics and videogames for two decades. In the film world, he’s best known as the lead concept designer for Duncan Jones’s sci-fi drama Moon (2009).
However, like so many others, his fascination with the genre dates back to the 1970s — specifically seeing Star Wars when he was 3. After becoming enamored with Luke Skywalker’s land speeder, Rothery kept insisting that his parents buy a levitating car with no wheels.
“[My father] had this bookshelf with all of these wonderful sci-fi covers. Those images were so striking that they imprinted themselves in my imagination,” he said. “I wondered what was going on in those places.”
Forty years later, he knew he wanted his first feature to feature A.I. prominently in the story, and to subvert genre tropes. Originally he shared a treatment with more seasoned screenwriters before deciding to script it himself.
That way, Rothery was able to maximize his limited financial resources. Want to shoot sci-fi on a budget? Keep your action confined to a single location as much as possible. Keep your camera movements simple.
And if you want to show a robot with its legs removed, just have an actor wear green pants, so you can keep repeating the same visual effect over and over again.
“Even when I was writing the script, I was on budget and writing for those constraints,” Rothery said. “The production approach was always about picking battles. You can only do so much. Once you’ve picked your battles, then that answers a lot of your questions for you.”
In addition to a limited theatrical release, Archive is available on digital platforms beginning this weekend.