'1899' Season 1 Review: Netflix Sci-Fi Mystery About Strange Ships Welcomes You Aboard
Writer Jantje Friese and director Baran bo Odar return to their showrunner duties with the first season of their new sci-fi mystery series 1899 (same title used in German). Set in that specific year, more than a thousand Europeans begin their journey to start a new life in America, boarding a ship called Kerberos in London. Soon after, German captain Eyk (Andreas Pietschmann) and his crew spot a missing ship named Prometheus, decide to investigate the situation and find no other signs of life there than a hiding, mute young boy (Fflyn Edwards).
After returning to Kerberos, strange supernatural forces begin to take hold, leaving Eyk, the boy and other passengers, such as English doctor Maura (Emily Beecham), British stranger Daniel (Aneurin Barnard), French trio Jérome (Yann Gael), Clémence (Mathilde Ollivier) and Lucien (Jonas Bloquet), Ling Yi (Isabella Wei) from China, Ángel (Miguel Bernardeau) from Spain, Ramiro (José Pimentão) from Portugal and Tove (Clara Rosager) from Denmark, to survive the stormy and shapeshifting seas while mostly not understanding others' languages.
First episode of the show is already a pretty good indicator of what's to come, as bo Odar and co. are able to introduce the overall brooding tone fairly easily, while Friese's writing moves viewers in and out of space to immediately establish the geography of the ship along with our main characters, which there are many. Udo Kramer's production design also has an essential role in that, making those spaces feel claustrophobic when necessary, before they're broken down to blend in with often impressive visual effects (supervised by Christian Kaestner) as they combine to play with real-life construction since the show has a heavy usage of Volume, a stage surrounded by virtual production. This helps Friese's writers room to expand on their storytelling, notably when they start to uncover the ship's mysteries.
Expansions on the ideas and how they are brought on to the screen elsewhere are too often messy at best and lousy at their worst. Last two episodes of the season—which would require a 4000-word essay to spoil so we're safe—become a mishmash of noise, whether that's Ben Frost's sometimes haunting, sometimes heavy-handed score, generic speeches from Anton Lesser's comical character or DoP Nikolaus Summerer's inept, unintelligible photography where he loses costumes, props and performances due to poor lighting, especially with a non-white performer like Gael which is extremely worrying considering the makeup of the cast.
Some of those problems might be compromises when using Volume but when writing and capturing of performances are below the standards, it threatens to sink the ship when that ship is so reliant on monologues, which then are supposed to serve twists and turns of the tides. That's why the series becomes more of a technical exercise as it goes on which is tiring.
Smileys: Production design, VFX
Frowneys: Cinematography, lighting, ending
Triangle of madness.