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1899 review: Yet another gripping mind-bender from the makers of Dark

The series takes its time to settle but once it does find a rhythm 1899 becomes an engrossing psychological thriller

3.5/5rating
1899 review: Yet another gripping mind-bender from the makers of Dark
  • Ryan Gomez

Last Updated: 04.38 PM, Nov 19, 2022

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Story: Maura Franklin (Emily Beecham) boards the steamship Kerberos, on its voyage from London to New York. Her fellow travellers who are from different nationalities are travelling to America — each with dreams of leaving their traumatic past behind and starting a new life across the Atlantic. But when the captain of the Kerberos, Eyk Larson (Andreas Pietschmann) receives a distress signal from a ship called the Prometheus, a ship that disappeared four months prior and is part of the same fleet as the Kerberos, the captain changes course in the hopes of finding survivors. His decision is met with uproar from the passengers and crew members. Things take an eerie turn when the rescue mission of the Prometheus finds just one survivor — a young boy with a mysterious pyramid-shaped object in his possession. A few passengers aboard the Kerberos soon end up dead without any logical explanation.

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Review: The trailer and even the early episodes of 1899 very much imply that it is a psychological thriller with a hint of the horror genre. But considering the series is helmed by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, the creators of Dark, taking the plot or even the genre at face value would be unwise. And at the end of each episode, it becomes evident that the supernatural element becomes less significant as sci-fi takes over. Science fiction in a late 19th-century setting offers a subtle steampunk aesthetic, and since the mysteries surrounding both ships are never truly revealed until the final episodes it limits how far the ideas of steampunk could’ve been explored. In many ways, 1899 subverts genres better than most TV shows in recent years.

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Unlike Dark, which is probably one of the most authentic and fresh ideas ever put on television, 1899 has taken inspiration from several real as well as fictional stories told over the decades. The most glaringly obvious one would be the various conspiracy theories surrounding the Bermuda Triangle, and it also appears to take inspiration from an underrated classic film from 2009 called Triangle. Moreover, the idea of a lost ship in the middle ocean with no sign of survivors is a frequently adopted premise for a horror thriller. However, the showrunners have deliberately added clues from the very first episode to suggest that there is far more to the story than what meets the eye. Immediately after the ten-minute mark of the pilot episode, there is a scene in the ship's large dining hall where all the characters, except Maura, inadvertently lift their cups to drink tea in unison. This scene establishes two things; it questions the reality of the world the characters are living in and that Maura is central to whatever is about to unravel.

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Without forraying further into the ‘spoiler’ territory it is essential to point out that the core of the narrative rests on the idea of the human brain’s perception of reality. While the series may not be as complex or mind-bending as Dark, it does leave the audience questioning their understanding of the plot at the end of each episode. This keeps the story engaging and the series binge-worthy. However, it does present the story with a problem. As each episode digs deeper into the idea of what’s real and what’s not, the audience becomes less compelled to be invested in the characters. There can be no argument that the series does flesh out these incredible characters but the very nature of their trauma becomes insignificant because of the questions surrounding the nature of their reality. However, it does not hinder the storytelling aspect of the series in any way.

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The climatic twist is well executed in the finale which is layered with several themes and plot devices. Thought-provoking discourses on trauma, grief, redemption, and love are explored in the series along with philosophical ideas such as Plato’s Cave. And the diverse cast and characters add an additional layer of intrigue. Fans of the series Dark will quickly recognise Andreas Pietschmann from the series. He essays the veteran captain whose empathy and compassion sets off a chain of events that brings chaos aboard the Kerberos. Lead star Emily Beecham, Miguel Bernardeau (Elite) as Ángel, and Mathilde Ollivier as Clémence essay standout performances. The rest of the main characters also essay excellent performances, and they have helped alleviate any detachment one may feel from these characters.

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Verdict: The comparisons between Dark and 1899 are inevitable considering the latter is Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese’s first major project since Dark. While 1899 might not be on par with Dark in terms of character development and writing, it stands on its own as a fresh concept built on familiar tropes. It does take its time to settle but once it does find a rhythm 1899 becomes an engrossing psychological thriller. The finale appeared to be headed towards a definitive conclusion to the story, but the final scene has turned the story on its head and a second season looks like a possibility.

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