Our current streaming culture exploits our interests in conspiracy theories, aliens, satanic cults, religion, time-travel and alternate reality paradigms.
We’ve been intrigued by these topics for some time, witness films like “JFK,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “The Da Vinci Code,” “The Exorcist,” “The Conjuring” and “Interstellar” attest.
But to make a series like Netflix’s “Archive 81” that traffics in all of these themes is bold.
That’s especially true when the aspiration doesn’t seem to be an unpacking, at a meta-level, of these genres like “Scream” or “Cabin the Woods” did for slasher films.
In fact, “Stranger Things” is the closest recent outing to compare with “Archive 81.” The new show matches the former for its straight-forward atmospherics, seriousness (sans the teen appeal) and delivering entertainment craved by those desperate for explanations, exotic as they might turn out, for our current culture.
“Archive 81” is a throwback to stories preying on our fears and explaining the growing weirdness of modern life. It asks, “What if the explanation for all of this is precisely what you do not want to believe?”
Its answer is to throw a protagonist, a videographer named Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie), into a ‘too-good-to-be-true-but-did-you-really-read-the-fine-print’ job.
He’s paid way too much money to restore video tapes from the 1990s involving the mysterious destruction of a mysterious building in NYC built upon the shell of a mysteriously burned down mansion owned by mysteriously occult-connected rich people. Said souls are trying to transform society by making contact with a god who is set to arrive via the passing by of a comet close to earth.
Plus, the mysterious disappearance of the graduate student (Dina Shihabi) who moved into said building in order to document the weirdness for her dissertation.
I just put that in two sentences. That means the elevator pitch was probably pretty good.
To add to the atmospherics, the protagonist’s father had a connection to the missing filmographer whose footage is being restored. She, in turn, starts to visit Dan, first in what seem like dreams, but then in an alternate reality in which he must increasingly believe.
He’s got a friend who increasingly thinks he’s going crazy. But then there’s more footage about the other guy who went crazy trying to do the same job but failed to complete it.
The employer, creepy from the jump, just gets creepier. His motivations remain a mystery (nicely) until the end.
The story’s ”found footage” element works very well to allow ghostly visions and the suggestion of time-travel or time-lapse (in the Intergalactic sense).
The one misstep is in a return to an earlier time at the end of season one that’s presented independently from the point of view of either the show’s protagonist or the graduate student’s found footage.
Perhaps the show’s creators filmed this portion and debated whether it could appear at the beginning or end, but eventually decided the end was best.
It’s an unnecessary interruption of the convoluted relationship in time between the present/immediate past/remote past that doesn’t gel given the connections already established.
Oh, and the special effects at times are worthy of “Raiders of the Lost Ark’s” final sequence, and some of the themes there recall those films as well. I haven’t decided if that’s a compliment or a criticism. Still, the overall experience is entertaining.
Absurdity is sometimes just absurdity; not stupidity. So, the show has that going for it. There’s no room, sadly, for “Stranger Things’” type self-deprecation, but neither does “Archive 81” slide into “American Horror Story” self-seriousness.
Of course, since it came out of the blocks with absurdity, it really cannot do anything but continue to take itself seriously and then become more sophisticated. Otherwise, it will quickly descend toward Linda Blair doing a parody of herself in “The Exorcist.”
And NO one wants that.
“Archive 81” raises serious questions about where all of this must be going, assuming more seasons are coming soon.
My daughter asked me about the ending (she’d seen the whole thing first) and I said, “Well, they have a heck of a lot of plates spinning in the air there at the end”), but I think it portends well for another season.