Netflix’s Archive 81 Review: The first must-watch series of 2022
We’re only about a little over a month into 2022 and Netflix has already provided its first must-watch mystery in the form of a new original series, Archive 81.
The series, loosely based on the sci-fi mystery horror podcast of the same name by Daniel Powell and Marc Sollinger, brings viewers into a dark mystery that unfolds when a reclusive video archivist named Dan (Mamoudou Athie) takes on a job looking through a missing filmmaker’s last footage and discovers horrifying personal connections to the filmmaker that send him on a psychological spiral. It’s actually impressive how things start out so simple with Dan taking on this task, but even early on, there are things pique your interest and make you ponder.
The sense of shadowy mystery not only behind the company tasking Dan with this project, but behind Dan, himself, feels palpable and creates early questions that persist in your mind as you’re watching. Things like the meaning behind the secluded location Dan is taken to work at, Dan’s traumatic past surrounding his mental health and his family’s death, and why these tapes are so important act as these great narrative breadcrumbs that hook you early on and get your wheels turning before Dan even plays the first tape. Along with these persisting mysteries, Archive 81 immediately boasts an amazing atmosphere that’s unsettling and eerie.
Aside from the chilling and visually stunning opening credits sequence, Archive 81 instantly gets your nerves going with the how isolated the series’ central location is. Dan literally feels cut off from the rest of the world, and yet, there’s this presence that can be felt breathing down his neck. Part of it is the watchful eyes of the mysterious man, Virgil (Martin Donovan), constantly surveilling Dan and the other part comes from Dan’s mind spiraling as he watches each tape. The aesthetic of the tapes is also incredible as the image of old video recorder footage gives the 90s storyline of the tapes following Melody (Dina Shihabi), the missing filmmaker, looking into the secrets of an apartment building and its residents a great found footage feel to it.
Honestly, Archive 81 is an excellent reinvention of found footage storytelling with how it tells and eventually blends its two central stories. Although Dan and Melody’s stories take place in two separate times, they blend excellently into one single narrative that transitions incredibly well between the two. Melody’s investigation into the Visser apartment building and the mysterious cult seemingly forming continually offers intriguing new discoveries that expand the overarching narrative and genuinely horrify you at times. The incredibly detailed storytelling behind the characters and mythos presents this rich horror narrative that never gives anything away and constantly subverts your expectations. Melody’s investigation would make a great series on its own, but the way it blends with Dan’s story in the present elevates the surprises and connections immensely.
Dan’s story has its own twists and turns with how his discoveries through watching Melody’s videos begin to haunt him in the present. The fine details of figures in the background as he navigates the forest that surrounds him, and the seemingly endless nature of the building’s interior creates these nerve-shredding sequences that are truly chilling. At times, it’s almost as if Dan has unlocked an evil presence from restoring and watching the tapes with the trippy psychological experience he goes on and as the tapes go on, you start to realize that he just might have. The best surprises of Dan’s story are the jaw-dropping connections that Dan finds within the tapes to his personal life and the true intentions of this job that rattle your brain and blow the story completely wide open.
Now, sometimes Archive 81 can throw a lot at you and make you question things in ways it’s not trying to. Often, Melody’s interactions with people can come off confusing and inconsistent. For instance, upon discovering that two of her neighbors are a part of a mysterious group, Melody doesn’t really question them much or talk differently to them like she does other residents. It’s especially odd since it all happens within the same episode so it’s not like a lot of time has passed and it’s like she forgets the moment even happened. There are a couple other moments like this that likely stem from the series trying to fill up its episodes with big moments and some just not landing as consistently. However, these weaker moments are easily overshadowed by Archive 81’s engaging storytelling and strong performances.
Athie and Shihabi lead their respective storylines excellently and exude the perfect mix of inner trauma, persistence, and emotion that defines their characters. Athie has already been having a great rise in his career, but this performance is easily his best and Shihabi is absolutely the breakout star of Archive 81. Their performances especially come together greatly as their stories start to connect and become one. As big reveals not only mess with Dan and Melody’s minds, but also create heavy implications for their perceptions of reality, their stories intertwine in ways that are incredibly trippy and catch you off guard as well as create some strong personal growth that fleshes out the story even further. These two coming together is a surprising treat that adds greater depth to the story and heightens the stakes to the point where it feels like they’re trying to stop a rushing flood or rather an evil presence that’s rearing its ugly head.
Archive 81 is the first great tv show of 2022 and the perfect kind of addictive and engaging mystery that Netflix subscribers would binge in a heartbeat. Its ambitious storytelling, multi-layered performances, and eerie atmosphere hook you instantly and never let go as it sends you down a horrifying conspiracy spiral that shocks and surprises you at every turn. Simply put, Archive 81 is a must-watch.