Be advised that, no, 1899 is not another Yellowstone spin-off titled after a random year from a prior century, like 1883 or the upcoming 1923. Some confusion on that point may be understandable. It seems that show-runners these days have run out of ideas for what to call their TV series set in the past. This one is a new mind-bending mystery thriller from Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, the creators of Netflix’s popular Dark. Whether it will become a breakout hit like that show did remains to be seen.
While 1899 has an interesting setting, some ambitious ideas, and a truly masterful control of style and atmosphere, the story is ultimately very derivative of a lot of other movies and TV series you’ve seen before, some of them even quite recently. That familiarity is frustrating and undercuts the show’s other merits.
|Number of Episodes:||8|
|Release Date:||Nov. 17, 2022|
The series opens in the title year, set aboard an ocean liner called the Kerberos en route from Europe to America. The ship’s captain is German, but the rest of the crew and the passengers come from a broad range of nationalities, including English, French, Spanish, American, and even a mother and daughter from Japan. Wealthy passengers have free rein of the upper decks, while the lower classes are locked below and prohibited from mingling with their betters. A large cast of characters have multiple side stories broaching themes such as racism, sexism, and class warfare. The most prominent among them are the sullen Captain Larsen (Andreas Pietschmann from Dark) still recovering from a terrible personal tragedy, and the willful Maura Franklin (Emily Beecham from Into the Badlands), a brain doctor struggling against the misogyny of the medical profession – and culture in general – in her era.
But this isn’t Downton Abbey on the high seas. After receiving a repeating distress signal from another ship called the Prometheus that went missing four months earlier, Larsen orders the Kerberos off course on a rescue mission. Most of the passengers find this delay in their travel upsetting. Once located, the Prometheus is dead in the water and almost completely deserted. The ship is a disaster that looks like it’s been abandoned for years. Larsen finds only one person aboard, a young boy who won’t speak and can answer no questions. When he tries to contact the shipping company for instructions on what to do next, he receives only two words in reply: “Sink ship.”
Larsen is deeply troubled by that command and wants answers. As he and Maura attempt to investigate the mystery of what happened to the Prometheus, increasingly bizarre, possibly supernatural events start occurring on their own ship. A stranger appears on board, passengers die inexplicably, and compasses and other navigation equipment go crazy as an impenetrable fog sets in. Maura has visions and hallucinations that make no sense to her. Eventually, when Larsen orders the ship to turn around and return to Europe, panic spreads and the passengers and crew move to mutiny.
Through all this, the series builds an ominous tone and a palpable sense of dread. The richly-developed atmosphere is unsettling yet also compelling. Unfortunately, some early clues to the mystery are a little too obvious and more-or-less give away the central premise long before the official reveal at the end of the season. By the time it finally comes, the big plot twist is disappointingly familiar and overplayed. I’d draw some comparisons to famous movies and TV here, but even mentioning their titles would undoubtedly ruin whatever surprise may be left for those who’d prefer to remain unspoiled. Suffice it to say, at least one iconic pop culture touchstone that covered this ground quite thoroughly two decades ago will immediately spring to mind. As recently as just two months ago, a somewhat notorious new film tried to pull it off again to far less success.
The creators of 1899 claim to have a multi-year plan for the series. The finale episode leaves off on a big cliffhanger designed to upend the dynamic of everything that came before it. However, like too many other so-called “mystery box” shows (Lost and Westworld are clear inspirations), I fear that this one won’t have anywhere to go next that can possibly prove satisfying in the long run.
Netflix streams 1899 in 4K, but the show’s photography is so dim and drab that it takes no advantage of the HDR encoding. The flat contrast and dull blacks are entirely purposeful to set the mood (and to hide some of the visual effects work), but don’t exactly make for home theater demo material. I don’t believe I noticed a single highlight across the entire season that extended beyond typical SDR range, even when the opportunity for it arose (such as the glow of a lamp piercing a darkened room, for example). I’ve watched plenty of other similarly dark shows (on Netflix, even) that make better use of HDR.
The show features characters speaking several different languages. Subtitles are mostly inside the 2.35:1 image, but the bottom row annoyingly dips into the lower letterbox bar. Technically, the text is still readable on a Constant Image Height projection screen, but just barely. Reducing the projector’s zoom a little helps, but will leave you with black bars around all sides of the picture. Obviously, this shouldn’t be an issue for anyone watching on a typical TV or 16:9 screen.
Netflix offers two Dolby Atmos soundtrack options for the series, one with the original mix of languages and one entirely dubbed into English. I’m not a fan of dubbing and opted for the original languages.
Don’t judge the audio quality by the opening theme song – a heavily distorted cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” with completely unintelligible lyrics. It sounds so awful that you can hardly even tell what the song is. After that part, the Atmos mix is suitably enveloping, with lots of creaking noises and spooky sounds coming from every direction within the ships. It also has a fair amount of satisfying bass rumble. Some of the characters’ thickly-accented dialogue is occasionally difficult to discern and can get buried in the mix a little, but not too severely. Overall, this is a very fun and creative Atmos track.