Review by Sean Boelman
Few filmmakers can attract interest to a project with their name alone like James Wan, the creative force behind such series as Saw, The Conjuring, and Insidious. The new show Archive 81, which he produced, is his weirdest and trippiest project yet, with a great atmosphere even if it is perhaps a bit too confusing for its own good.
The series follows a video archivist who is commissioned to restore a set of video tapes made by a filmmaker investigating a mysterious cult with a connection to his past. It’s a complex story with a lot of layers, presented in a way that is even more complicated, but the catharsis is so good that it is worth it.
Much of the series is told in two storylines: one the archivist restoring the tapes, and the other the story of what is on the tapes. But as the series progresses, things get weird and the layers begin to blur in fascinating ways. It can be a bit hard to follow, and will leave viewers wondering if they missed something even though they haven’t.
There’s an interesting bit of commentary here about generational trauma, but that is mostly left unexplored until the back half of the series. The stuff about cults and indoctrination is a lot more generic, and feels like an easy ploy to be creepy. The fear of the unknown is obviously dominant, and not a lot is known about cults.
The thing that really shines about the series is its protagonists. Both of the characters are extremely likable, but what is most impressive is the way in which the series intertwines their arcs together. It creates parallelisms, and while there is sometimes a bit too much exposition, it is necessary for the audience to pick up on what’s going on.
Mamoudou Athie yet again proves that he is a rising star in his lead role. Although he’s playing a mostly passive part for much of the series, more reactionary than anything else, it’s impressive what he pulls off, especially given that a lot of his scenes are solo. Actress Dina Shihabi is also great, and really provides a good foil for Athie even though they are driving different storylines.
Stylistically, the series takes a bit of time to find its footing. At first, it can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be modern or retro, supernatural or psychological, but it does hit its rhythm quite nicely by the third episode. And while there’s nothing especially terrifying about the show, there’s no denying that it’s creepy.
Archive 81 is definitely not for the casual horror fan, but those who tune into its weird wavelength will be intrigued. Whether the demand is enough to expand the mystery even further is to be seen.
Archive 81 hits Netflix on January 14. All eight episodes reviewed.