Archives in the Movies

Note: This post contains movie spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Batman Begins, and The Fugitive.

As an archivist, I immediately notice when archives show up in feature films or other programs I am watching. “Look!” I excitedly whisper to my fellow viewers as I tug on their sleeves and point at the screen. “Archives!” I am impressed that the screenwriters choose to use archives as a recognizable place where characters go to retrieve crucial information. To non-archivists (at least my very slim poll), the central nature of these places in the overall plots does not stand out by the time the movie is over. But to the characters, they are critical.

I recently had the opportunity to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The mission in this movie is to obtain the schematics for the Death Star from the Empire’s archives so that the Rebel Alliance can defeat it. The “plans” resonated with me from the original Star Wars movie, in which R2D2 carries Princess Leia’s message with these schematics to Obi-Wan Kenobi to help the Rebels successfully obliterate the Death Star (Leia says, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”) But where did these plans come from? Rogue One helps us put that piece of the puzzle together.

The Rogue One team goes to the planet Scarif expressly to obtain the plans for a specific section of the Death Star. In this perilous mission, we get to see what archives look like for this galaxy. Not paper-based, they are data archives, stored in a huge, above-ground tower crowned by a satellite dish. When the Rebel characters on this mission find the piece of data they need, they manage to transmit it to Rebel leaders, and from there the data is transmitted to Princess Leia’s ship. At the end of the movie, a copy of the plans are safely in Leia’s possession. In its defense, the Empire uses the nascent Death Star to destroy the planet and the archives. (The destruction of the archives is a bit shocking — I don’t know what to make of this!)

A large part of this movie concerns itself with reaching and obtaining critical information from the archives. In fact, it is central to the plot. If they don’t get these plans, they will have a hard time defeating the Empire. And, it provides some context for Star Wars (1977).

Another movie that caught my archival attention is Batman Begins (2005). I immediately noticed that Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) was demoted from the board of Wayne Enterprises to the Applied Sciences Department (a “dead end”) — the archives. This is the backlog of old developments that never took off. Well, after looking through all of the equipment and special suits, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is pleased to take advantage of this “old” technology to create his persona, Batman.

Even further back, in another movie, The Fugitive (1993), Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) relies on past human tissue samples housed in the basement of the hospital (it’s the archives!) under the care of Bones Roosevelt (John M. Watson, Sr.) to make his case against Dr. Charles Nichols (Jeroen Krabbé). It is through examining the samples from the tissue archives and noting the dates of their approvals that Kimble starts to put together a strong case against Nichols.

To me, all of these film stories — and many more that I have not covered — use archives, whether mentioned directly as such or not, as places where reliable, unique information can be found, and for a variety of needs. (Note: Internet Movie Database does not even mention the word “archives” in any of the plot summaries for these movies — even Rogue One!). Everyday people are able to access this historical information: Rebel upstarts, rich playboys, wrongly accused doctors (all from the movies), as well as students, faculty, staff, local and visiting researchers, genealogists, retirees, school children, and the list goes on.

Whether you are trying to stop evil, as the protagonists in these three movies are, or just need a little history about Appalachian State University or the Appalachian region, Special Collections is here to provide it.