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‘1899’ (review)

It’s tough to easily describe 1899 without giving it away. Let me begin by not burying the lead: I dug it.

1899 is a story that surrounds the voyage of over a thousand international migrants from Europe traveling from London to New York aboard the steamship Kerberos.

When the Kerberos encounters a signal, presumably from the lost ship Prometheus, they change course to investigate it.

Thus begins the trippy journey of a cast of characters so international you need a Venn diagram just to keep them all straight. German, French, Cantonese, Portuguese, Polish, Spanish, and English are all spoken by the international cast, so make sure your subtitle game is strong before taking this on.

But don’t let that dissuade you from watching it.

The different languages from the passengers and crew actually make the situations much more intense once the poop hits the fan on the ship.

As things become more and more dire, having to depend on the person next to you without understanding them adds another level of riveting tension.

1899 was created by the same team behind the hit Netflix drama Dark, Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese.

As with Dark, the co-creators split their duties once again with Odar directing and Friese writing each episode. 1899 is part of the overall deal the creative duo signed with Netflix after Dark’s breakout success, putting them in the same elite company with media titans Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes. Erik Barmack, Vice President of international originals at Netflix, describes Odar and Friese as filling the mandate of “transcending borders; where a hit show can come from anywhere in the world.” Netflix has had similar success with the wildly popular Spanish drama Money Heist as well as the growing popularity of shows originating in Korea, Germany, and the Middle East.

1899 is a visually stunning show that heavily utilizes the new technology known as the Volume.

The Volume isn’t your daddy’s typical greenscreen. It allows for a sometimes 360 degree view of a landscape so breathtakingly real it’s easy to lose yourself in the increasingly mind bending story. I would also suggest the effects, sometimes as fantastical as they are, are the way CGI is truly meant to be – one that services the story first.

Some of the scenes, especially those involving weather-whipped landscapes, will have you asking out loud, “That must be a location shot.”

The beauty and style of 1899 notwithstanding, it’s the mysterious story that keeps you involved.

Like with Lost, Friese employs the tactic of introducing the backstory of a particular character with each continuing episode. Giving backstory not only peels away another layer of mystery from the ever-evolving story but allows us to empathize with each character’s journey.

The cast, or should I say caste, of characters range from the captain of the ship all the way down to the men who shovel the coal, passengers enjoying the spoils of first class to the poorest below deck dregs, and the chosen few who seem to maneuver somewhere in between.

One such passenger, Maura Franklin, played by the exceptional Emily Beecham, seems to not fit into any particular category as a female doctor in a world where those are far from accepted. Along with Dark veteran Andreas Pietschmann as the brooding captain Eyk Larsen, the two slowly figure out in real time that nothing is as it seems.

Other characters include a French couple on a loveless honeymoon, a religious family seeking to start a church in the new world, a Geisha and her handler, a priest and his slick brother, a coal hauler, and a stowaway. 1899 lays several breadcrumbs to follow including handwritten letters to each character that all have the same thing written on the envelope: “What is lost will be found.”

Eventually this is true.

Inevitable comparisons to franchises like The Matrix, television’s Lost, or even the recent Olivia Wilde film Don’t Worry Darling are valid, but 1899 operates on a level that, believe it or not, has far more emotional depth. It is all together thrilling, scary, and entertaining while not forcing a moral down your throat.

I look forward to the next chapter in Netflix’s partnership between Odar and Friese.


Fred Shahadi is an award-winning filmmaker and TV writer living in Los Angeles,
he is the author of the JFK sci-fi conspiracy novel
Shoot the Moon.

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